The "long campaign" has been a feature of British politics since at least 1992, an election that in many ways provides a template for this year's choice. The Labour Government is modelling its strategy more or less explicitly on John Major's campaign for re-election, and some of the parallels are striking. Then, Neil Kinnock ran on the slogan of "time for change", just as David Cameron does now. The Conservative advertising campaign, launched yesterday to coincide with a speech by the party leader, and that staple of modern political communications, a message to Sun readers, were taglined simply, "Year for Change". The advertisements themselves had no other words, and Mr Cameron's Sun article and his speech did not provide much more of the "small print" that he promised us last year.
The one policy that was new was the promise to set up a cross-party "war cabinet" to oversee operations in Afghanistan. "I will invite leaders of the main opposition parties to attend the war cabinet," he told his audience at the Oxford School of Drama. "When a nation is at war it needs to come together and to pull together." It is an interesting idea, although there are reasons for caution in welcoming it. If such a cabinet had existed at the time of the Iraq invasion, would it have made a difference, or would the Lib Dems, the only party to oppose the war, have found themselves simply co-opted into clearing up the mess?
For the rest, though, Mr Cameron's opening gambit of the long campaign was thin on detail. Even the broad brush was selective. The green agenda was conspicuous by its absence from the Sun article, while "the environment and civil liberties" got a single sentence in the speech. (Mr Cameron devoted more of the speech to claiming credit for the leaders' televised debates.)
As we report today, the Labour Party will respond this week. Gordon Brown hopes to emulate Mr Major's against-the-odds success in persuading the British people not to take the risk of an untried team, and to stick with the devil they know. Elements of this strategy are credible. The Government can claim credit for getting the big decisions right in responding to the recession. Although the public finances are in a dreadful state, unemployment and home repossessions have not been as bad as in the recession of 1990-92. There is also a genuine difference about policy for the future. The Conservatives want to cut public spending earlier and more deeply than in Labour's plans, outlined in the pre -Budget report last month. We understand that the Chancellor will this week unveil Labour's equivalent of the "tax bombshell" campaign that was launched against them in January 1992 – by a Tory team including a young Mr Cameron and an even younger Steve Hilton, now the Tory leader's strategy adviser. The gist of Mr Darling's message is likely to be the "Conservative cuts bombshell", putting figures to some of the implications of Tory policy in much the same exaggerated way that Messrs Cameron and Hilton did to Labour 17 years ago.
Although the terms of the debate may be overstated, the nation faces still a big choice at the election expected on 6 May. In dealing with the vast gap between public spending and revenue, spending will have to be cut and taxes will have to rise, but towards which should we lean more? As we said last week, The Independent on Sunday prefers a European quality of public services paid for by European levels of taxation. None of the main parties has been explicit enough about the sacrifice to come of either spending cuts or tax rises, but the burden of explanation should fall most heavily on Mr Cameron. He is, after all, the favourite in a race that still has five months to run.
Yesterday, he recalled one of his old politics textbooks, adopting a phrase of Giovanni Sartori's to accuse the Government of behaving like an "irresponsible opposition", by promising a land of milk and honey without saying how. He contrasted this with his claim to be behaving like a "responsible government", despite being in opposition, because he is prepared to be clear before an election about "our intention to cut public spending".
That may be unusual in democratic politics, but these are unusual times and the prospectus remains alarmingly vague. As Mr Cameron said yesterday, in one of his more ornate rhetorical flourishes, "One thing is absolutely clear: we cannot go on like this." Over the next few months, much more detail is expected of the Conservative Party's plans for the nation.