Steve Richards: And the first-round winner is... Clegg

Both Cameron and Brown are taking him seriously. Finally he is in the game
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The Independent Online

The election campaign is underway. Yesterday addicts could listen to interviews in the early morning, move on to press conferences during the day and sit back to watch the analysis late into the evening.

Such an absurdly early start to the unofficial campaign is not unusual. In 1992, the last time an election was certain to be called within months, the parties took to the stage within days of the New Year. Like now, both parties had no choice but to follow the other. There was one important consequence. John Major's government had run out of anything to do after the March budget in 1992. Major announced an April election rather than pretend to be busy for a moment longer. Gordon Brown will struggle to maintain momentum now. Even so every cabinet minister I have spoken to expects a May election.

Brown made it absolutely clear in his unofficial campaign opener with Andrew Marr that there was no way he would depart voluntarily before then, as a few internal opponents still hope. With that look of exhausted, wilful, melancholic determination he told Marr: "I've always fought. Everything I've ever won in my life, I've had to fight for."

Some militant Blairites regard Brown as a coward who will not dare to fight an election. It is one of many elements about Brown's character that they misread. A politician who resolved to become Prime Minister and prevailed after being a Chancellor for more than a decade is not going to give up now and is not a coward.

Instead Brown's past fuels his seemingly irrational hope. In the end he has won many more political battles than he has lost. He reads his dismal poll ratings and the fickle columnists screaming for him to go. But for 10 years he read columnists confidently declaring he would never be Prime Minister. He still thinks he can prevail in one more titanic battle against the odds. If the dissenters want him out they will have to go for the kill and what a mighty, unpredictable conflagration would follow such a move.

Brown also clarified another point in his interview. He is not following a narrow core vote strategy, but clings to that old new Labour slogan from 1997 in which he claims to act for the many and not the few. After the calamity of the 10p tax abolition and the expenses scandal Labour was in danger of being slaughtered even in its very safest seats. As a result he and others pay more attention to the so-called core vote, but if there was any chance to do so Brown would seek to range as widely as Peter Mandelson in picking up a bigger tent of support.

During the first term Peter Hain warned in an interview with me that New Labour was being "gratuitously offensive" to its core vote. The Defence minister, Peter Kilfoyle, resigned to become the defender of the core vote. Tony Blair and Brown did not mind. It was Brown who coined the phrase "the entire country is our core constituency" in response to Kilfoyle's resignation. Brown's instincts are for a broad pitch, projecting Labour as the party responding sensibly and fairly to international and domestic challenges while seeking to place the Conservatives on the isolationist right.

David Cameron's opening move highlights his determination to avoid such terrain. After an autumn in which Cameron launched several attacks on the state, he began his campaign with a defence of the most dramatic manifestation of big government, the NHS.

Over the sweep of his leadership Cameron can claim consistency. He began as leader by stressing his support for the NHS and places it now at the centre of his election campaign. But on "tax and spend" Cameron still lacks the pre-election swagger that Thatcher/Major managed in the 1980s and early 1990s. Both George Osborne and Ken Clarke have refused to rule out tax rises and yet Cameron talks of individual tax cuts taking their place in a long queue of tax-cutting commitments. Meanwhile we are promised a better NHS and Swedish-style schools with an emergency budget in which the axe will fall on a fragile economy and in ways that will make Swedish levels of spending more distant than ever. In truth both Labour and the Tories struggle to sound credible and optimistic at the same time. The attempts to do so are the main source of internal tensions at the top of both parties.

Perhaps the struggle to shape credible election winning messages in a recession explains why Brown and Cameron both stress similarities with the Liberal Democrats. For Nick Clegg there is one tiny danger in the love-in. If voters believe Cameron's tendentious claim that his party has moved closer to Clegg's they might find it easier to vote Conservative in seats currently held by the Liberal Democrats. But on the whole Clegg should be jumping with joy at this latest twist.

Cameron and Brown flatter him and the media will take note by paying him more respectful attention. Such flattery has not happened to a leader of a third party before. Blair wooed Paddy Ashdown in 1997, but John Major did not do so. In 1992 neither Kinnock, nor Major showed any public affection for the Lib Dems.

Clegg has both Cameron and Brown taking him seriously. Finally he is in the game. As a significant bonus Labour goes into the election calling for a change in the voting system. Some of Brown's advisers urge him to make more of this, to declare at every opportunity that if Labour wins this will be the last election under "first past the post".

Brown cannot bring himself to do so with any great enthusiasms because he is no enthusiast. It does not matter. The commitment is made. Some cabinet ministers are pressing for a system that is fairer than the Alternative Vote. I doubt if they will succeed in the next few months, but they might once the election is over. This is a big difference with 1992 when privately Kinnock had become a convert to electoral reform, but could not say so because his deputy, Roy Hattersley, was a passionate opponent. How times have changed. Hattersley is now a keen supporter too.

Clegg is the winner of these early skirmishes and he has hardly uttered a word.