Seatbelts on please, crash helmets too. The pre-election row over personal care for the elderly shows alarming signs of blundering on to polling day.

Is there a silver lining in all this? I am not persuaded, though Andy Burnham, our happy warrior health secretary, thinks there might be. But first, the story so far.

Tory HQ exploded a nasty bomb, that Gothic gravestone poster with a “RIP Off” message warning voters against Labour’s “£20,000 death tax”

What triggered last week’s uproar at prime minister’s questions, in the Westminster corridors and during an amazing three-cornered ding-dong on Sunday’s BBC Politics Show, was a Guardian report the previous Tuesday.

It suggested ministers have already decided to opt for a £20,000 compulsory levy on all estates to pay for the mounting care bill as the baby boomers retire, the demographic “pig in the python”.

Preparing to publish results of their consultation on last July’s green paper, ministers denied it. Yet Gordon Brown was evasive during questions next day when he revealed Burnham’s search for a rough consensus in private talks with shadow Andrew Lansley (it was his idea) and Lib Dem Norman Lamb, who sides with Burnham.

Labour was cross because its candidates have been taking hits on the doorstep. Voters had read Tory leaflets (it is on the party website too) saying ministers plan to slash the attendance allowance and the disability living allowance to pay for Brown’s personal care at home bill. An interim election wheeze, says me.

Councils think it is underfunded. I am sure they are right. So does the care lobby. Even the partisan Sunday Telegraph admits the Tory election wheeze, an £8,000 voluntary insurance scheme, is underfunded.

The Tories say no: aged 65, one in five may one day need residential end of life care after 75, on average £25,000 worth for two years. If you take five people’s £8,000 you get £40,000; add interest and hey presto!

Let’s put that to one side. The Tories also had a grudge. Labour canvassers are saying that Lansley opposes any national care scheme. Not true: he later issued his own list of bland draft principles, including “legitimate scope for different views” on compulsory/voluntary schemes.

Burnham would be happy with difference during the election. Tories could offer their voluntary scheme, though take-up would be low, so costs higher. Labour could offer compulsory contribution options, including equity release, pension deferral and money taken from the deceased’s estate. The risk pool is bigger (good), but bureaucracy too.

Unfortunately Tory HQ, which heard rather late about Lansley’s tripartite talks, had exploded a nasty bomb, that Gothic gravestone poster with a “RIP Off” message warning voters against Labour’s “£20,000 death tax,” though it turns out that Labour has actually been doing polling on a 10 per cent estate tax.

Yes, frightening elderly voters with that Tory poster is shabby. Alas, they all do it. Labour says it must have been pre-planned and blames Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s Alastair Campbell figure.

Lansley’s camp denies all that. The poster was knocked up in hours, never printed, merely deployed on computer screens (and TV news). Burnham wasn’t taking it seriously, his part just “three texted sentences”.

Result? Burnham has organised a snap care conference this week to embarrass Lansley and tells colleagues his Tory shadow likes to intellectualise, but can’t hack the rough stuff. Nonsense, the “death tax” attack was Lansley’s, his team protests. Arghh!

And the silver lining? Burnham believes it takes the energy of election rough and tumble to get a policy enacted rather than merely talked about. Is that why it has taken 13 years to get this far?