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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 14:05 GMT
Let battle commence
After months of phoney war, the relief is unbounded. At last, the party tacticians have taken to their bunkers and the battle-plans are unfolding.
Command and control of each of the main parties' campaigns is exercised from their Westminster nerve centres: Labour's Millbank Tower, Conservative Central Office and the Liberal Democrats' Cowley Street headquarters.
In the war rooms of all three, the all-important election grids - the countdowns to polling day detailing for each party the activities of its key figures - now dictate the pre-prepared, focus group-approved soundbites, campaign themes and promises aimed at seducing the voters.
Labour: Operation Turnout
For virtually all Labour's central campaigners, this is the first general election fought as the incumbent.
Ministers' special advisers, many of whom were transplanted from their bosses' Commons offices to their government departments after Labour's 1997 win, resign as political appointees on the calling of the election.
Most move seamlessly into acting as election HQ "anchors" for the same people, now out on the road.
Chief among them is Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's official spokesman. As in Downing Street, though, he will stick closely by the Labour leader's side.
Controversially, a clutch of lobbyists, former Labour staffers and researchers who went off to make money in the world of commercial "public affairs", has also returned to do its bit.
Among them is David Hill, Labour's communications director for years before signing up with Bell-Pottinger, back temporarily to help with media operations.
Mr Blair will spend most days on the campaign trail paying flying visits to carefully chosen targets. Back in London most evenings, he will be on the scene to head any of Labour's morning news conferences when judged appropriate. Gordon Brown, chair of election strategy, will otherwise lead most of them.
Philip Gould is, as previously, chief pollster, daily consulting his focus groups and feeding into the inner-circle the concerns of Middle England and the fickle floating voter.
In the war room itself Mr Gould's importance to Mr Blair is signalled by his seat at the central control desk at which he, Labour general secretary Margaret McDonagh, election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander MP and election organiser Pat McFadden will spend the duration of the campaign.
Millbank's attack and rebuttal unit, media monitoring team and press officers are each grouped on their own nearby desks.
Labour hopes the trade unions and easier access to postal votes will come to the aid of the party. Affiliated unions aim, through a co-ordinated effort, to deliver around half a million postal votes for Mr Blair.
Tory target practice
The Conservatives are focusing their efforts not on the top most marginal seats where they are the challengers, which they calculate will return to Tory hands in the flow of a national swing towards them, but on those seats deemed winnable further down the target list.
Hence constituencies such as Kettering, fifth on the Tory target list with a swing of just 0.17% bringing it back to the party, will be largely left to look after themselves.
Others such as Reading West, which a swing of 3.10% would wrest from Labour, will receive greater attention and resources.
There are few Tory MPs who privately admit to believing their party will form the next government. The underlying strategy, they say, is to move further up the electoral beach towards victory next time round.
The Tory war room is designed along newsroom lines, with a foreign desk, home desk and Treasury desk. A central newsdesk, at which former Times journalist Nick Wood is placed, forms the hub dealing with all "intake" before directing it to the specialist teams.
Like Mr Blair, William Hague will spend most of the campaign visiting target seats across the country.
Each day will be topped and tailed, though, with meetings of the core campaign team - his chief spinner Amanda Platell, close aide Lord (Seb) Coe, head of research Rick Nye, shadow chancellor Michael Portillo, shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude, Tory chairman Michael Ancram, shadow Cabinet Office minister Andrew Lansley MP, and Mr Hague's speechwriters.
Shadow cabinet members Ann Widdecombe and Iain Duncan Smith are being kept on the campaign-trail shoring up the core Tory vote - to whom, party strategists concede, their appeal is best suited rather than to "switchers", "floaters" and the London-based media.
Tory telephone canvassing is also be based at party HQ for the election, with a call centre aiming to have reached a million voters in targeted marginals by D-day.
Lib Dems: Tories the main enemy
The Liberal Democrats, though hoping to mop up some of the disillusioned Labour vote and pushing their social justice attacks on the government's record, face most hand-to-hand combat on the ground against the Tories.
The party must defend the seats it gained from judicious targeting in 1997 when the Lib Dems boosted their parliamentary force to 46 despite an overall drop in their share of the vote.
Of those 46 seats, 21 are vulnerable to swings of 5% or less - and 18 have Tory challengers.
Similarly, in most Lib Dem seats it is Tory necks that Charles Kennedy's party is breathing down: a 2% swing from the Conservatives would deliver 10 of their seats to him; a 2% swing from Labour would result in just a single Lib Dem gain.
Unlike previous Lib Dem campaigns, Mr Kennedy's leader's tour, on which he is flanked by his spinner Daisy Sampson and aide-de-camp Anna Werrrin, will not focus mainly on the party's stronghold of south-west England, but take him to all parts of the UK.
In the first-floor war room Lord (Chris) Rennard, legendary within the party for translating detailed number-crunching into effective strategy, presides over the campaign team while fellow peer Tim Razzall, chair of election planning, oversees overall strategy.
Alongside them is Kate Fox, election planning manager, and a 17-strong army of researchers.
Communications chief David Walter heads the press team based on the floor below. The daily news conferences will take place off the premises at nearby Transport House in Smith Square - now home to the Local Government Association.
The Cowley Street basement houses the policy team, led by manifesto author Richard Grayson.
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