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INSIDE TRACK: With friends like these who needs love-bombing?

IT'S official; the 2015 General Election campaign has begun.

The last full week for Westminster before MPs gather up their buckets and spades and head once more unto the beach, dear friends, was full of pre-election skirmishes that one would have thought the big day was next month rather than next spring.

The PM's night of the long knives, when he excised a hefty chunk of the "male, pale and stale" contingent from his government and brought in the rising female stars of the 2010 intake, was meant to signal that, in the long run-in to the May poll, he wanted to present a fresher, younger feel to the Conservative Party.

Apart from William Hague's unexpectedly sudden departure from the Foreign Office, the biggest eyebrow-raiser was the extraction of Michael Gove from his radical crusade at Education. The urbane Scot had up-ended the teaching unions once too often and the last thing a party leader needs in the charm offensive that is the election campaign is a headline-grabbing battle between one of his ministers and the "blob".

Yet one seasoned Whitehall insider, on hearing about Mr Gove becoming the Tories' Minister for TV, blanched and described it as "bizarre". The last thing you wanted, it was suggested, was the Chief Whip constantly on the telly, especially when said minister was "unstable".

Another indication that the election gloves are off came at PMQs when David Cameron quoted Harriet Harman about how middle-income earners should pay more tax. There we have it, declared the PM, Labour would put up your taxes. An hour or so later, Tory HQ had created a campaign poster with a picture of the deputy Labour leader and the offending quote in bold letters.

But the Tory attack wasn't true. All Ms Harman was doing was stating what the current consensus was on how those who earned more paid more tax.

Of course, Tory HQ knew it was being economical with the truth but, hey, the words are the words and they will be repeated through to polling day. Then, Nick Clegg eased out the Liberal Democrat about-face on the bedroom tax. He insisted a review had shown the policy had not worked and needed a major overhaul. But it looked like a significant move in the Lib-Con "de-coupling" accompanied by the Lib Dem chief lovingly referring to how Tory "headbangers" had won the day with the removal of moderate ministers in the reshuffle.

Just to underline the manifesto mood, Clegg Central shoved out a promise to have big firms show the gap between what they paid men and what they paid women. But the pre-election love-bombing was not over yet.

Yesterday, Ed Miliband sought to curry favour with Labour's traditional base with the promise of a partial renationalisation of the railways while Mr Cameron likewise soothed Conservative heartlands with a pledge to introduce union strike ballot thresholds, effectively making any future industrial action nigh on impossible.

As party election machines crank up, we should be forewarned that, despite all the distortions, misrepresentations and downright lies ahead, all is fair in love, war - and politics.

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