THE gloves are off. The first hard punches in the long General Election campaign have been landed and political bruises are already showing as the Labour and Conservative contenders trade blows in their quest to become the next UK champion.

Labour HQ which, helped by the previous Conservative governments’ duplicity and economic mismanagement and now by the internal strife gripping the SNP, has been making progress in convincing voters it’s time for a change north and south of the border.

Yet there is a sense of unease emerging among the comrades that Rishi Sunak, regarded by many as a polished performer and having the added advantage of not being Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, is beginning to pull back some of the support ceded to Labour.

One Shadow Minister put it bluntly, telling The Times: “The polls simply aren’t a reflection of what I’m seeing on the ground when I go out canvassing. There is simply no way that we are 20 points ahead; 10 or 12 at the most.”

A poll yesterday suggested nearly a third of voters either said they didn’t know which party they would support or they wouldn’t vote at all.

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Worryingly for Sir Keir Starmer, people seem to be leaning towards his Tory opponent as to who would make the best PM with analysis suggesting 21% preferred Mr Sunak with just 8% opting for the Labour knight. The biggest number, some 67%, said they still hadn’t made up their minds.

It’s said the Conservatives’ own internal polling is giving the same message. If true, presumably Labour’s is too.

Which may be why the UK Opposition has adopted a more aggressive posture with a number of campaign ads in the run-in to May’s local elections in England; seen as a bellwether ahead of the 2024 poll.

The Labour claim which raised hackles was that Mr Sunak didn’t think adults convicted of child sex assaults should go to prison, citing how 4,500 people convicted of sexually assaulting children under 16 had served no prison time.

The Herald:

The staggering numbers were to 2022 from 2010 but that’s five years before the PM became an MP and 11 before he entered Downing St.

Senior Conservative backbencher Tobias Ellwood was outraged, branding the attack “appalling,” former Labour Home Secretary Lord Blunkett said it was “deeply offensive” and decried the use of “gutter” politics while John McDonnell, the ex-Shadow Chancellor, insisted his party was “better than this” and called for the campaign to be scrapped.

Sir Keir, however, was unrepentant. Indeed, he even took to the pages of that favoured Labour organ, the Daily Mail, to declare that he made “absolutely zero apologies” for the ad campaign regardless of how “squeamish” it made people.

Among the squeamish were folk inside the Labour Party and, possibly, even within the Shadow Cabinet.

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Yet the message Sir Keir wanted to get across was: Labour is now the party of law and order. Opposition strategists are said to have been happy with the response to the attack ads as they raised the party’s profile and gave Sir Keir, often regarded as bland and boring, a harder edge.

The Conservative counter-punch to Labour’s attack ad was administered by Chris Philp, the UK Policing Minister, who denounced Sir Keir as a “total fraud,” arguing his record on crime was “worse” than his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn’s. Which from a Tory perspective is meant to be the height of offensiveness.

Of course, ad hominem attacks during campaigns are nothing new.

Who could forget the “demon eyes” ad of the 1997 campaign when the Conservatives, clearly sensing defeat, sought to demonise the New Labour leader? Or indeed the Tory campaign of 2010 when a poster showed a beaming Gordon Brown next to the words: “I released 80,000 criminals early. Let me do it again.”

The problem with personal attacks, however, is they can be high risk because any campaign strategy has to have one key characteristic: believability.

If the voters don’t buy it, then Labour’s ploy could well backfire and see the “nasty party” label pinned on them.

While Scotland may not become much of a problem for Labour’s revival because of the well-advertised weaknesses of the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives, hanging onto those English red-wall seats could prove a much tougher challenge for Sir Keir and his colleagues.

It is these seats which, if the 2024 contest is close, could prove to be the difference, say, between a minority Labour Government and a minority Tory one.

Key to any election victory is the economy and how the public sees it. In Washington, Jeremy Hunt sought to rubbish the IMF’s prediction that the UK economy would be the worst performer among G20 countries this year. The Chancellor even declared Britain’s economy was “back”.

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Yet as we saw in the flat February numbers, the ongoing strike action is taking its toll on growth. While Mr Sunak’s pledge to halve inflation looks plausible, serious question-marks exist over the other four: growing the economy; getting debt down; reducing waiting NHS lists in England and stopping the Channel boats.

Failing on four out of five by the next General Election would not impress voters, which is why the PM is likely to hold back from going to the country until the autumn of 2024.

As the political weather stands, Sir Keir and the comrades still look most likely to win; maybe not by a knockout blow but possibly on points.

And yet as we all know in Britain the weather can change quickly.

If Mr Sunak can pace himself, place a good distance beyond his two failed predecessors and deliver some of his key promises - most notably an economic feel-good factor - then, come the morning after the election, the scorecard could be much closer than any of us may have believed only a few, short months ago.

Very few things are cast-iron in politics but one is the astounding ability of some politicians to, occasionally, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.