Over the years, Margaret Thatcher was wrong about a lot of things. One thing she got right, however, was the length of British general election campaigns. "Three weeks is long enough," she pronounced in 1997. That was the year in which, trailing in the polls but optimistic that the election could somehow be turned around, John Major began January by exposing the nation to something called "the long campaign". Immediately after the Christmas lights were off, Mr Major threw himself into a series of presidential press conferences and midweek regional campaign visits and, amid speculation about a possible March election, made an unusually early announcement that the vote would after all be held in May. His purpose, he explained to groans, was to put his youthful rival under pressure and to expose the opposition's policies to scrutiny. When the votes were eventually counted many weeks later, it had all achieved precisely nothing. In theory, though, Mr Major had a case, just as, in theory, Gordon Brown has one today, as he makes an eerily similar throw of the new year dice on behalf of Labour 13 years on. In an ideal republic, sure, the more political debate the better for us all. In principle, a long campaign offers the public more information about policies, more chance to weigh the talents of the rival leaders and to digest their prospectuses, as well as more time to make the richly informed and well-balanced decisions that beleaguered incumbent prime ministers always hope will save their parties at the last from the ungrateful rejection which the opinion polls predict.
In practice, the world simply does not work that way. An election campaign does not start at some artificial year zero moment, least of all at one of the politicians' own devising. It arrives swaddled in its own past, not actively sought but recognised as a necessary catharsis, with a cast of familiar characters and with the parties' individual and collective baggage prominently in tow. That is especially true when so much of that baggage, in expenses-tarnished 2010 just as in sleazy cash-for-questions 1997, is strewn indiscriminately across the political stage. For all the thought and energy that the politicians invest in it, the campaign all too often changes little and inspires less. It can easily outstay its often grudging welcome. Mrs Thatcher's instinct was better than Mr Major's or Mr Brown's. Perhaps that partly explains why she was better at winning elections. Mr Brown nevertheless feels that a long campaign offers rewards. He may believe it protects him from internal challenge, while David Cameron, confident that Mr Brown is a Tory asset, is happy to play along. Both leaders, however, have started the new year with appearances that provoke as many questions as answers. Having spent much of the latter part of 2009 promising an age of austerity and cuts, Mr Cameron moved yesterday to promise extra emphasis on public health and the less well-off. Mr Brown, meanwhile, has toned down the class war and instead gone to war to the classroom, using a promise about one-to-one tuition as an attempt to frame the election as a contest between Labour investment and Tory cuts. In truth, neither party has yet found a consistent and convincing message. Nick Clegg, suddenly love-bombed by both of them after years of disdain, is right to keep his distance from such inconstant suitors.
Believable debates may eventually emerge from this effortful flailing. For the moment, though, it remains a phoney war rather than the real deal. The Commons returns today with some proper business to attend to – from financial services, the Copenhagen debacle and airline security through to parliamentary reform and Labour's shabby attempt to disenfranchise NW Leicestershire by denying it a by-election. There is a few months' political meat left on the parliamentary bone. Stick with it. The election campaign will be with us soon enough.