THE election date has not even been declared yet but the three major parties are already acting as if it had been, showing the goodies they have to offer and touting for votes.

Over the weekend the Tories got top billing for highlighting the problem of illegal traveller camps, Labour produced its mini-manifesto for children and the Liberal Democrats got much less mileage out of a manifesto for business.

For Michael Howard's Conservatives, starting as they do from a position of weakness in the present Parliament, it is imperative that they set the tone and the subjects on the political agenda - and so far they have done just that.

Mr Howard is an old and experienced hand and it is to his credit that the Tories - once rated neck and neck with the Liberal Democrats - are now starting to look like a possible alternative to Tony Blair.

Of course, these dying days of a Parliament are traditionally the time for an opposition party to make its mark by outlining its policies, carefully saved for the occasion.

"This is about fair play" trumpets Conservative head of policy co-ordination David Cameron about a five-point plan to give local councils power to ensure the rapid removal of illegal caravans, which would probably get widespread support.

But it doesn't sound all that fair when the talk gets round to doctoring the Human Rights Act and gives force to Labour's jibe about "tapping into the biggest vein of bigotry".

There is also the smack of opportunism about Labour's package of measures for children.

In particular, belated plans to raise the nutritional standard of school meals seem like a blatant hi-jack of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's excellent Channel 4 series.

We all accept the point Jamie made so passionately but no-one outside Government seems at all impressed with plans for yet another watchdog to ensure standards.

Which makes the Tory verdict that the plans "seem good but are probably all a gimmick" itself look valid.

Perhaps it's time for a proper look at the Liberal Democrats' plan to end "heavy-handed, interfering government" by among others abolishing the Department of Trade and Industry.