One night a short time after New Labour swept to victory in 1997, the Chancellor hosted a party for a handful of close friends. As he put on his coat to leave, one guest remarked, “Great party, Gordon”.skull_tombstone1

Rumour has it that Brown turned to him with a grim smile. “The Labour Party,” he rumbled. “That was a great party, wasn’t it?”

The central tenet of Tony Blair’s project was the need to siphon off the colouring of Old Labour ideology. He was left with a translucent and electable party that promised not to raise taxes for the middle classes while pledging to pump money into the NHS and leave the financial markets to their own devices. Meanwhile, Blair went about wooing the powerful and wealthy like a hyperactive peacock. It was the first Labour government that could honestly say it was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.

The Pre-Budget Report has been a game changing event. In what The Times briskly branded a “Robin Hood-style budget”, Alistair Darling has dug his fingernails into the upper middle classes and drawn blood. A new 45 per cent tax band for earnings above £150,000 and national insurance increases across the board go against every rule in the Labour electoral book since 1994.

Once again the kaleidoscope has been shaken, and more than ever before the pieces are in flux. Where they will land is anyone’s guess.

The Times’ leader today ran under the simple obituary headline: “New Labour 1994-2008.” George Osborne was keen to do some scythe swinging of his own, announcing: “Stability has gone out of the window, prudence is dead.”

This may be the death of New Labour, but it’s also a study in inevitability. Party politics have returned, breaking through the tarmac of the Blair era like the roots of an oak. In his private diary, Hugo Young once noted that Blair had “deeply alienated people more traditional than he is”, adding: “He has overlooked the degree to which one day he would need the party.” That day has come, although it’s Brown who faces the music.

The battle lines are drawn in a way not seen since 1992, and the tribal drums are banging.

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You can almost smell the cordite in the air. Mass briefings, new advertising campaigns and a striking Pre-Budget Report: an election is in the offing, and today the first salvos were fired.

Even the quickest flick through the Sunday headlines gets monotonous. The Observer went with “Darling to slash VAT and spark Xmas spree”, The Sunday Times said “Gordon brown to cut VAT as winter recession bites”, The Telegraph heralded the PBR as an ’emergency budget’, while The Independent said “Brown and Darling slash VAT in £18bn tax gamble”.

Last night’s Treasury phone bill must have been a whopper.

At the red-top end of the market, Gordon Brown wrote a piece in today’s News of the World declaring “I’ll give help when you need it”, and Alistair Darling similarly honoured The Mirror with an exclusive interview.

Before we get into the meat of it, there’s a telling contrast in the ads the two main parties are putting out. After so much chatter about the way Obama used web tools to sweep to US electoral victory, it’s refreshing to see Labour take a leaf from his script. Have a look at this electronic dig at David Cameron from the Labour website:

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Unusually for a political ad, it’s actually quite funny. On the other side of the divide, the Tories have dredged up the famous ‘tax bombshell’ ad John Major deployed against Neil Kinnock in 1992:

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It’s surprising to see the Conservatives harking back so clearly to Major’s beleaguered and recession-struck government, even if the poster did play a part in bashing down Kinnock’s 16-point poll lead at the time.

Darling’s PBR on Monday is expected to slash VAT to 15 per cent, increase the state pension by up to £5 a week and cancel tax hikes on car users and small businesses. It’s a festive swag-bag of goodies to woo that taxpayer that will cost the Treasury £18bn. So what next?

In April, Britain takes presidency of the G20 and world leaders – including Barack Obama – converge on London. This is the earliest point Gordon Brown could realistically call an election. This week a former Cabinet minister told The New Statesman that “Gordon has to get the Obama visit out of the way then call an election”.

Keen not to be seen cashing in on the economic crisis, the man himself told BBC One that “I am not thinking about that at all”. Cameron told Andrew Marr that “I am ready for an election at any time”. A great vignette from Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer column:mandelson

Peter Mandelson was on fine form at a drinks party at Millbank last week. The Business Secretary made a few eyes pop out on stalks by openly declaring that the general election would be on 10 June next year, the same day as the local and Euro elections. After savouring the effect this had on his listeners, he then gave us a pantomime wink. “That was a joke,” he twinkled.

One thing is for sure – timing is everything, and if Brown fluffs it as he did last autumn he will certainly forefeit the premiership. The Independent’s Alan Watkins thinks a spring election is on the cards if the polls tighten a bit more. Spectator editor and Telegraph columnist Matthew D’Ancona thinks Tory ranks are rattled by the prospect of an election, but believes the Conservative top brass is expecting Brown to play long and go for autumn 2009 or spring 2010. In The Sunday Times, Dominic Lawson thinks Brown and Darling’s PBR is a huge error and calls on Jeremy Clarkson to save the country.

For me, the man of the moment has to be big beast and former Chancellor Ken Clarke. If I were George Osborne, I’d be looking over my shoulder with some concern.