Whenever politicians attack eachother in the run-up to a general election, it is safe to assume that some journalist somewhere will write a story beginning with the words: “The gloves came off in the election battle today as….”
In truth, the gloves are hardly ever on in British politics, such is the extent to which our adversarial system encourages bare-knuckle fighting between the protagonists.
Nevertheless, Tory leader David Cameron’s attack on Premier Gordon Brown over MPs expenses at the start of this week did represent something of a step-change in the pre-election skirmishing.
“Gordon Brown cannot reform the institution because he is the institution. The character of his Government - secretive, power-hoarding, controlling - is his character,” he said.
Such language certainly represents something of a paradigm-shift from the noble aspirations set out in Mr Cameron’s victory speech when he became Tory leader in December 2005.
“I'm fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring, finger pointing,” he said back then.
There was more than an element of calculation in this, given that all recent polling evidence suggests that the public is equally fed-up with Punch and Judy politics, or ‘negative campaigning’ to use the technical term.
Indeed, it has since emerged that an internal report on the Tories’ 2005 election campaign found that personal attacks on Tony Blair had actually done more damage to them than to Labour.
Now what was really interesting about this finding was that it showed that politicians saying what the public is thinking is not necessarily always the way to win elections.
Even before 2005, a growing number of people felt that Mr Blair had taken the country into war with Iraq on a false prospectus – but when the Tories branded him a “liar,” the attacks backfired.
Why was this? Well, partly, it’s because the floating voters who actually decide elections are not always thinking the same way as the wider public – as the Tories also found when they talked about immigration.
The biggest reason, though, is that when opposition politicians resort to negative campaigning, it invariably leads the public to assume they have nothing positive or new to offer.
My own hunch is that Mr Cameron was on the right lines when first took over, and that his subsequent decision to “get personal” is a significant strategic error on his part.
Maybe he thinks Mr Brown is now so unpopular that he can freely insult him in the knowledge that the public agrees with him, but if so, he is confusing what the public thinks with what the public wants.
Mr Brown may well be unpopular – but what people really want to hear about from Mr Cameron is his policies, not what he thinks of his opponent.
If he continues to talk about personalities rather than policies, they will fairly swiftly conclude that it’s because he hasn’t got any.
If there is one single quality the public is looking for in its politicians today, it is authenticity.
Just as Gordon Brown sold himself to us as a “serious man for serious times,” so Mr Cameron sold himself as the man who would put the “sunshine” back into British politics.
But as the Labour blogger Paul Richards put it this week: "When he attacks Gordon Brown’s personality, Cameron no longer sounds like a decent family man. He sounds like a public-school bully, flogging his fags for burning the toast.”
In other words, he can’t suddenly start playing Mr Nasty when he’s sold himself to us as Mr Nice.