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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 March, 2004, 12:47 GMT
Prime Ministers Questions
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Well it looks like it's going to be the longest general election campaign in history.

The election campaign starts here
Michael Howard and Tony Blair have clearly decided to beat about the bush no longer but get stuck in right now.

In a question time clash that threatened to out-do the following budget debate - in terms of heat if not light - the two leaders rolled out their campaign wagons, whipped the lead horses and galloped off towards May 2005, or thereabouts.

And if their Commons performances are anything to go by, this will be a long, bloody and highly entertaining campaign.

Mr Howard will accuse the prime minister of breaking previous election pledges, particularly on taxation, left, right and centre.

And the prime minister will reel off a list of improvements in health, education and other services which have only been achieved by Labour's high spending and all of which the Tories opposed and would undo.

Open question

He will also try to cast voters' minds back almost a decade to the last Tory government which, he will suggest, drove Britain to near ruin.

Kennedy missed the fun
They both claimed they loved the knockabout and could not wait to carry it on at every possible opportunity between now and the general election.

Whether they can sustain this sort of stuff for a year while keeping voters' attention is an open question.

There must be a danger it will all run out of steam and that boredom will set in about nine months or so before the real campaign kicks off.

Meanwhile MPs were asking where on earth Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy was.

The ever impressive Sir Menzies Campbell had to stand in for him at question time while economics spokesman Vince Cable was to do the budget response.

Sadly, Mr Kennedy has fallen victim to a particularly nasty stomach bug which would have made a long spell in the Commons impossible - and certainly dangerous.

Shame he missed all the fun.

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