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I went along to the Treasury select committee in Portcullis House this afternoon to see five of the country’s best known financial journalists take a mild ruffling from John McFall and the boys. From the crowds milling in the corridor beforehand you could tell it was going to be top rate entertainment, and sitting inside were some newspaper A-listers – Quentin Letts doodling on his shorthand pad and Polly Toynbee bagging a seat near the front.

Simon Jenkins of the Guardian, Alex Brummer of the Daily Mail, Robert Peston of the BBC, Lionel Barber of the FT and Jeff Randall of Sky sat in front of the committee like unrepentant sixth formers. The mood swung back and forth from jocular to snappy. Tory MP Michael Fallon fired the first real salvo when he asked Peston whether he had any sources within the Treasury. Peston’s answer sent a ripple of chuckling through the crowd:

You won’t be surprised that the only area I’m uncomfortable talking about in public is sources of any sort. Over the years I’ve benefited from private conversations with a lot of people, including members of this committee. I’ve talked to you, for example.

Fallon pressed on, asking if Peston had his own pass to the Treasury. “I’m perfectly happy to say I have not got a pass to the Treasury,” Peston replied, adding that if Fallon liked he could ask the Treasury how often he was there, somewhere in the region of twice a year by his guess.

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Among predictable exchanges – did the witnesses feel responsible for precipitating the run on Northern Rock, no they didn’t – Simon Jenkins sounded the most controversial note.

He suggested the government leaked bad news about ailing banks to journalists like Peston before buying up the shares at a cheaper price a few days later.

I think the government has that level of competence. There was a massive interest to the taxpayer to make these shares cheaper. It would be almost weird for the government not to have done it, but how much the journalists involved knew about it I don’t know.

For the record, Peston and others rejected the idea. The talk dwindled as the session wore on, before at the end John McFall cheerily plugged Alex Brummer’s book, Crunched.

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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.