Tony Blair told voters "you're the boss" yesterday as Conservative leader Michael Howard visited Birmingham at the start of the General Election campaign.

The worst-kept secret in Westminster was confirmed when the Labour leader revealed he had asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament ready for a ballot on May 5.

The no-holds-barred nature of the contest immediately became apparent as Mr Howard came to Birmingham and claimed "patients are dying" because of Mr Blair's policies.

There was a minor scuffle as Labour activists holding anti-Conservative banners clashed with Tory party workers.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy launched his party's campaign by visiting five major cities - Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Edinburgh and Norwich.

The election announcement means a number of Government Bills will fall by the wayside.

They include the Equality Bill, which would create a body to fight discrimination based on age, religion and sexual orientation.

Mr Blair promised to explain his personal beliefs to the nation as he began his attempt to win a third term, something no Labour Government has ever achieved.

He said: "One of the other things that the next few weeks will allow me to do personally is to re-state to people again the one thing that motivates me personally every day of my political life."

He added: "It is a big choice. It is a big decision. The British people are the boss and they are the ones who will make it."

Mr Howard was greeted by dozens of candidates and activists as he arrived at Birmingham's International Convention Centre.

His decision to visit Birmingham on the first day of the campaign reflects the importance the West Midlands will have in determining the election result.

He pledged: "We will clean up our hospitals by giving matrons the power to close wards that are infected with MRSA."

He added: "Mr Blair's obsession with targets has created a culture, in which, the super bug thrives.

"In other words, patients are dying because of Mr Blair's targets," he added.

The Liberal Democrat leader outlined the key themes of what his party would be campaigning on in the coming weeks.

Mr Kennedy said they would be open with people about taxation and would also campaign to scrap tuition fees, replace the council tax and put more police on Britain's streets.

Bookies William Hill made Labour 12/1 on favourites to take the most seats on May 5.