And so begins the most iimportant general election campaign since 1997. As expected, Gordon Brown has chosen this morning to drive to Buckingham Palace and ask the Queen to dissolve parliament, sparking a battle over the future of Britain, the first stages of which, at least, will end on 6 May.
The symbolic move comes after a weekend of intense discussion and strategising at the top of the Labour Party. Last night, Labour’s electoral big guns — including Douglas Alexander, the Miliband brothers and Ed Balls — gathered at No 10 to prepare for today. This morning, they gathered again with the rest of the cabinet to outline Labour’s pitch for an electorate faced with what Brown and David Cameron are calling a “big choice”.
“The people of this country have fought too hard to get Britain on the road to recovery to allow anybody to take us back on the road to recession,” the Prime Minister is expected to say.
Just in time, there gathers a strong team around Brown, including Peter Mandelson, Alexander and the Milibands. The role of David, the Foreign Secretary, is particularly significant. Hypocritically accused of being at once a “bottler” who failed to topple Brown and “disloyal”, he is plunging into this campaign with a view to helping his rival win.
Miliband’s new campaign blog, in which he will talk to voters, is a small indication of that. This morning, meanwhile, Neil Kinnock was chosen as the man to be shouted at by John Humphrys on the Today programme.
For perhaps the first time in two years, Labour is united. For Brown personally, the stakes could not be higher. The towering Labour figure of his generation even in 1994, when John Smith died, his position was usurped by a wave of support across the party for Tony Blair, who looked like a winner.
Having wrongly allowed the false narrative to build that he had been “robbed” of the leadership, he grew bitter as he fought for over ten years to take over from Blair. Then, finally allowed to take the helm in summer 2007, he saw his own popularity and that of Labour soar, only to be punctured brutally in the autumn of that year.
Now, after the crash, the hint of recovery . . . and the slim chance of victory. In four weeks he will either have pulled off the political comeback of the century or end up, in the words of the late Roy Jenkins, a “tail-end Charlie”.
But if the stakes are high for Brown, they are higher still for the country. David Cameron has proved himself a talented media player but a bad party reformer. The Conservatives refused to make fiscal policy their “Clause Four” and they go into this election wedded, extraordinarily, to the same mantra of cutting “red tape” as they pursued in the past three elections they lost. Is that a vision? With cunning, if predictable skill, Cameron says the question the country faces is whether we want “five more years of Gordon Brown”. True, the voters may well baulk at that.
Yet Brown should not be underestimated. He was, it should be repeated, almost universally written off for months. Now, polls point to a hung parliament and newspapers carry features with experts explaining how he can win.
The next four weeks are about so much more than Gordon Brown, however, as the unity around him paradoxically shows. It is a battle between Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems for the soul of this country.
And when it comes to the biggest decisions of all — about the values and, yes, the parties that are to lead this country and its approach to the world in the next five years — it is always unwise to underestimate the supreme collective intelligence of the great British electorate. We shall see.