You might not have noticed but the 2009 general election campaign started this week. When Tory politicians spoke, they barely mentioned Tony Blair. The man in all their sights was Gordon Brown.
The Chancellor was described as "wedded to the past" and a "dour old schemer" whose "superficial makeover" could not hide his "left-wing thinking" and unfitness to be Prime Minister.
The Tories, who promised an end to "Punch and Judy politics", argued their concerted attacks were fair game because the Chancellor had relaunched himself as Prime Minister-in-waiting in what was dubbed "Project Brown." In turn, Labour aides branded the Tories' efforts "Project Get Brown."
Politics has entered an odd phase. In his speech to the Scottish Labour conference yesterday, Mr Blair insisted (again) that he has "far more to do". Yet his demeanour these days is almost that of a member of the political commentariat. As his premiership enters its final chapter, he seems happy to appear above the fray, leaving hand-to-hand fighting to others. Mr Brown and Mr Cameron are happy to oblige. Long before the official battle begins, they are itching to define each other to prevent their rival getting a head-start.
That explains the Tories' anti-Brown blitz and Mr Brown's determination to range wider than his Treasury brief. But the Chancellor is bemused by reports about his image makeover, saying he has been wearing pink ties for months - even if the fashion editors have just noticed. And he didn't intend to look like Biggles when he visited a frigate off the Isle of Wight. In fact, he was ordered to keep his funny helmet on until he was clear of the helicopter.
That the two candidates for Prime Minister in 2009 are so keen to get their retaliation in first shows they fear each other, even though they profess otherwise.
It has become fashionable to regard the Chancellor as a vote-loser who could never refresh the parts of Middle Britain that Mr Blair can reach. The perception was fuelled by Labour's crushing defeat by the Liberal Democrats in the Dunfermline by-election on Mr Brown's home turf.
Yet the Tories' ferocious attacks suggest they are worried the Chancellor may offer a potentially attractive combination of experience and freshness in the post-Blair era, while Mr Cameron's "change" pitch would lack a solid track record to reassure voters that electing him would not be a gamble.
Unless the economy takes a severe turn for the worse, the Tory attacks may misfire. At present, the voters broadly trust Mr Brown because of his economic record. Labour's focus groups give him a high rating when people are asked which politician they would like to help them if their car broke down or - wait for it - who they would like their daughter to marry.
Mr Brown may prove an elusive target: when the Tories brand him the "roadblock" to Mr Blair's public service reforms, it only reinforces his determination to back the reforms publicly.
Mr Brown's double act with Mr Blair was successful partly because Mr Blair could play footsie with the middle classes while Mr Brown's policies were geared more to helping the less well off. When the Prime Minister departs, Mr Brown will be on his own. There is no obvious Blair Mark II to be appointed New Labour's salesman in Middle Britain. So those Tories expecting Mr Brown to position himself as an Old Labour redistributionist will be disappointed.
Team Brown points out the Tories will not have any policies until their various reviews report in 18 months. Mr Cameron, though, acknowledges the need to avoid a policy vacuum. Having successfully junked much of his party's baggage, I suspect he will offer some pretty strong signposts over the next 18 months.
He needs to: A YouGov poll yesterday showed that 63 per cent of those asked believed the proposition that "Cameron talks a good line but it is hard to know whether there is any substance behind the words." The same survey also showed 41 per cent believed Mr Brown would make the better prime minister, with 35 per cent opting for Mr Cameron.
Robin Harris, the former Thatcher adviser who gave Mr Cameron his first party job, has some unwelcome advice for him. Writing in the journal Prospect, he warned Mr Cameron he is underestimating the Chancellor and would fail in his attempt to brand him an unreconstructed socialist.
"There is no evidence that Mr Brown will pursue more 'extreme' socialist policies than Blair," he said.
With friends like those, the Tory leader does not need Labour enemies. Mr Cameron and Mr Brown have one thing in common: they will offend party traditionalists in the hope of winning the support of the wider electorate.Reuse content