When I was covering the American presidential election in 2000 a despairing member of George W. Bush's travelling press corps told me that after months on the road with Dubya, the reporters staged a mutiny. They cornered his political brain, Karl Rove, and demanded a new stump speech. They wanted new soundbites, new arguments ... most of all, they wanted new jokes. There is nothing more soul destroying for reporters than hearing the same tired gags three times a day for 18 months. Rove listened politely and smiled, but sadly he could not oblige. "We change the stump speech," he said, "when every voter in the country can recite it.".
What seemed funny when it was happening to other people is no longer a laughing matter as the parliamentary press gallery contemplates the longest election campaign in living memory with politicians in the comfort zone of tried and tested messages. The election is four months away but, rest assured, it's already under way. In more than one sense we've been here before. It is 30 years since Back to the Future was released and our politicians are emulating the film by returning to the hits of yesteryear.
The Sunday Times leads its political coverage today with the latest from David Cameron and Ed Miliband. The prime minister thinks it's 1992 and is unveiling a new Labour "tax bombshell" in the hope of re-enacting John Major's injury-time victory from a goal down while the Labour leader is seeking to emulate Tony Blair's 1997 success in warning that voters have "24 hours to save the NHS". (Well, it's still here…)
The prime minister will shortly be on the Andrew Marr show, where he will unveil Treasury analysis of Ed Balls' economic plans. Cameron told the ST that Labour would have to pay a "breathtaking" £13.5bn extra in debt interest payments over the lifetime of the next parliament, accusing the Labour leader of pouring public money "down the drain".
By 2019-20 the Tories say Labour would pay £5.7bn a year extra. That is conveniently precisely the sum you get from slapping 1p on the 20p and 40p rates of income tax - hence the claims of a new tax bombshell.
But there's one problem. Balls's number crunchers say the figures are wrong. They say the Tories have assumed they will balance the books by 2020-21 rather than 2019-20 (and they might do it earlier), which puts debt repayments on a different trajectory. They are suspicious that the baseline figures used are from the 2013 autumn statement, rather than anything more recent.
And Labour believes the Tories have "double counted" some of the debt by misusing a ready reckoner tool designed by the OBR. Let's see what Robert Chote's people say today.
It is the second time in three days that Tory figures have been questioned. The party's first campaign poster said the coalition had "halved" the deficit, a claim that is true only as a proportion of GDP. In cash terms, it is down by a third. There was also embarrassment for the Tories last night, when Channel 4 News appeared to have discovered that the Conservatives road to recovery poster features a road in Germany. Angela Merkel will be pleased...
Miliband, meanwhile, is making a major speech tomorrow that will paint an apocalyptic image of life after five more years of Tory government. Key to that is a warning that the NHS is on "life support" and that the health service "as you know it cannot survive five more years of David Cameron". That's the message on Labour's first campaign poster, which uses the same airbrushed image of the PM when he pledged to "cut the deficit not the NHS" five years ago this weekend.
Labour are today publishing a 27-page dossier on NHS failures present and future, concluding that seven of the 15 patients' rights enshrined in the NHS constitution have been breached, and that 20 million people will be waiting a week for a GP appointment in 2020.
Andy Burnham warns in the Sunday Mirror that re-electing the Tories would be a "death knell" for the NHS, while Frank Field is on similarly apocalyptic form in the Mail on Sunday.
The Sun on Sunday mocks up Cameron and Miliband as boxers trading blows.
So what does all this mean for the election? Pollsters (reluctantly) give their predictions for May and put Labour narrowly ahead.
This is the first Sunday Red Box without a substantive mention of Ukip. Nigel Farage will be reinserting himself into the political conversation shortly on Sky's Murnaghan show.
2015 Election Countdown
122 days to go
DIY Dave does Europe
Speaking of Frau Merkel, she's in town on Wednesday for talks about the German G7 presidency. Someone in No 10 told me on Friday that they want to avoid more headlines about Cameron's European renegotiations and concentrate on the economy. See above.
But they obviously didn't tell the PM himself, who makes clear in his traditional new year interview, this time with the Mail on Sunday, that he is prepared to tell the German chancellor that the UK could leave the EU. "If I don't get what is needed I rule nothing out." This is the same formulation he gave during his speech on immigration before Christmas and is a reminder that the EU is never far off the top of the political agenda, whatever Lynton Crosby might hope.
In a classic of the "highly personal" and "wide-ranging interview" genre, Geordie Greig and Glen Owen dub the PM "DIY Dave" as he reveals that he spent Christmas unblocking the U-bend of his lavatory with his own hands. The image is amusing and carefully calculated to depict "man of the people" bonhomie. Not everyone has a second country home like Chequers to retreat to when their house "is falling apart", as Cameron complains.
The PM also reveals that Barack Obama calls him "bro" (that should go down well when he visits the White House this month), reveals that he authorised the removal of Theresa May's special adviser Nick Timothy from the Tory candidates list, tells Boris Johnson that he will have to wait for a cabinet post until he is no longer mayor of London (something Boris agrees with) and that he plans to introduce new schools and welfare legislation in the first 50 days of a new Conservative government.
Number of days the Commons will sit before the election
Brady's bunch of demands
But what happens if the Tories don't get a majority? One key figure in that scenario will be Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee, the shop steward for Tory backbenchers who also has the task of keeping count of the number of MPs who want a leadership contest. Both roles could come into play if Cameron fails to secure a majority.
Brady has given an interview to The Sunday Times in which he makes clear that Conservative MPs must have the right to a formal vote with a secret ballot if Cameron wants to agree a second coalition agreement with the Lib Dems or anyone else. You will remember that Nick Clegg gave his MPs and peers a say last time, which has bound them rather tighter into support for the coalition than some Conservatives. Brady himself thinks there should have been a Tory minority government in 2010 with a second election after a year.
The prime minister has previously said that he would consult MPs next time but has repeatedly refused to offer a secret ballot. He wasn't having any of it when I interviewed him in October.
Brady said: "Conservative colleagues would have to be consulted and have input. I think it's a given that there would have to be a vote." Asked if it should be a secret ballot, he said: "I think that is inevitable."
Brady, who resigned from Cameron's front bench in 2007 over the issue of grammar schools, also called on the prime minister to do more to put aspiration at the heart of the Tory campaign. Some on the right think that if Cameron falls Brady himself is the kind of dark horse candidate for leader, enjoying enough support among his colleagues to ruffle a few feathers and land himself a big job on Boris Johnson or Theresa May's front bench.
He is also interesting on the need to give ordinary MPs more of a chance to vote their consciences. He was one of 81 Tory rebels who defied Cameron and voted for the Tories to back an in-out referendum on Europe in 2011, a policy adopted the following year.
He told me: "More free votes would be a good thing. On the majority of things that come before the House of Commons it would not be an existential threat to the government of the day if a vote went a different way. The pledge that we will hold an in-out referendum is central to our policy on Europe and central to our offer at the next election. So we got to the right place. It is an indication that members of parliament exercising their independent judgment doesn't cause the sky to fall in. Sometimes it strengthens their party."
It's an interesting place to pitch your tent if you're contemplating a long-shot leadership bid.
Anyone who seriously predicts a Tory - Labour coalition should probably be stopped from commenting on politics, using scissors, and driving.
@Sean_Kemp VIEW TWEET
New asylum loophole
More immigration headaches are looming for Theresa May, as it emerges in today's Sunday Times that criminal asylum seekers are entering Britain with no background checks as a matter of policy.
The paper has obtained a letter to peers from Lord Bates, the Home Office minister, in which he admits that no checks are made because this could increase the risk of persecution for the applicant or their family in their home country. This, Bates wrote, risked "potentially strengthening their claim for asylum".
Frank Field MP, co-chairman of the cross-party group on balanced migration, described the policy as "nonsense on stilts". He said he will question the loophole when parliament returns this week.
Meanwhile the Sun on Sunday has obtained a "buried" government report on further border loopholes that allow guns and drugs to enter the country, prompting the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, to say: "This is yet more evidence that under Theresa May our borders have become less secure."
Would you prefer for parties to have more of a consensus, or to be more different from each other?
2015 GENERAL ELECTION
Public rejects 'middle ground' parties - poll
The first polling of 2015 gives us something that is, for me, a surprise result, writes YouGov's Stephan Shakespeare. Before divulging, I invoke Twyman's Law: "If a statistic looks interesting or unusual, it is probably wrong."
For years I had heard voters thirsting for more consensus - but then (exclusively for Red Box, using YouGov's First Verdict polling platform, yesterday, with 615 respondents) I posed the following question: "Over the past 50 years, the clear trend has been for the main political parties to become more similar to each other. Do you think it's better for the country if that trend continues, so there's more consensus, or if that trend reverses, so that the main parties become more different from each other?"
Eighteen per cent wanted the trend to continue, creating "more consensus"; 65 per cent wanted it to reverse, creating "more and clearer differences between the parties" (8 per cent wanted it to stay "as now", 8 per cent said "not sure"). Perhaps it's weariness of coalition that has produced this result against the so-called "middle ground", also leading to increasing support for both Ukip and the Greens. It may be worth reconsidering conventional campaign wisdom about aiming squarely at the centre.
Cameron Junior heads to state school
If he survives the vagaries of the election, David Cameron is poised to make Tory history by becoming the first Conservative PM to send his child to state school.
His daughter Nancy is to be offered a place at Grey Coat Hospital academy, a top-performing secondary school within walking distance of Downing Street, sources close to the school revealed. Ten girls apply for each of Grey Coat's 151 places for 11-year-olds.
The Church of England school is rated "outstanding" by Ofsted and appears in Tatler's guide to the best state schools. Michael Gove and Sarah Vine's daughter Beatrice already attends, and staff are understood to have been told before Christmas that Nancy has been enrolled.
New pension pot plans proposed
The pensions minister Steve Webb tells the Sunday Telegraph that he wants to expand the government's radical pensions reforms to those who are already locked in to annuity plans.
Under plans announced in last year's budget and due to come into force in April, new retirees will be able to choose to take control of their savings as a lump sum, or to draw it down in instalments.
But an estimated five million pensioners already have annuity contracts, lasting until death, which guarantee them an annual income. In recent years the value of annuities has plummeted, and critics say they offer poor value to pensioners.
Lib Dem minister Webb tells Tim Ross that he wants to change the law to enable people to sell their annuities to pension funds and insurance firms - a plan he says has gained "considerable support" from the insurance and pensions industry.
He hopes to launch a public consultation and publish detailed plans before the election, and will seek support from Labour to ensure that the plans proceed whoever wins in May.
What The Papers Said
The government will force mobile phone companies to cut off phones used by prisoners, with an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill introduced tomorrow. In a memo leaked to the paper, Theresa May writes: "We know of cases of serious crimes including large drug imports, escapes and murders being organised from prison, enabled by illicit mobile phones."
Research by the Labour party finds that a third of Tory candidates in battlefield seats have links to the financial services industry, including 30 sitting MPs. The party has also accepted more than £28 million from donors with links to the industry since 2010. A Tory spokesman called the report a "desperate smokescreen".
YouGov's "policy knockout contest" finds that a clampdown on benefits for migrants is the most popular policy with the public, for the second year running.
INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY
MPs are planning to force fast food companies and manufacturers of chewing gum and cigarettes to contribute to the £1bn a year cost of cleaning up litter.
Backbench Tory MPs are planning to rebel over Theresa May's plan to block jihadist suspects from returning to the UK. The rebels, including the former attorney-general, Dominic Grieve, and David Davis, are planning to support a Labour amendment that would force her to get court approval first.
David Lammy fires the starting pistol on the election-after-next by announcing that he will run for mayor of London.
The shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, pens an op-ed warning that the schools inspectorate Ofsted should stay out of politics.
MAIL ON SUNDAY
An attempt backed by Theresa May to secure a knighthood for the cricket commentator Geoffrey Boycott was vetoed by the Cabinet Office because of his conviction in France for assaulting a former lover in 1996. It gives us the best headline of the day: "Geoff Boycotted".
The shadow Cabinet Office minister Jonathan Ashworth joins the chorus of cross-party complaints about the underworked "zombie parliament" created by five-year fixed parliaments.
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1. All the evidence says that Ed will win. Yes, it really could happen
- Adam Boulton, Sunday Times
2. The deficit: Fewer insults, more facts (and figures), please
- John Rentoul, Independent on Sunday
3. There's a vacuum now in British politics. And it's Blair-shaped
- Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer
4. The cuts will carry on in 2015 - but they'll do us good
- Bruce Anderson, Sunday Telegraph
5. Go to bed with Ed and wake up in failing France
- Tony Parsons, Sun on Sunday
MPs return from Christmas recess
Home Office questions
Trial of former Ukip candidate Matthew Smith for alleged electoral malpractice starts in Norwich
Deputy prime minister's questions
Counter-terrorism bill reaches report stage in the Commons
Peers return from Christmas recess
First prime minister's questions of the year
MPs on energy and climate change committee quiz minister Ed Davey on the outcomes of the Lima summit
Nicky Morgan takes questions from the education committee on careers advice follow-ups
Oral questions on business, innovation and skills
Constitutional reform committee holds session in Belfast on devolution after the referendum
Office for National Statistics publishes trade figures
NHS publishes statistics on waiting times at A&E over Christmas