No more Dolly, this is war

On personality, policy and money the Tories prepare for a new aggressive era

"Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough" - the battle cry of half a dozen rosé- fuelled Tories in a Pimlico bar on Sunday night after witnessing Gordon Brown's graciously Presbyterian acceptance speech in Manchester. Enjoying the liberty of the last indoor puffs of Marlboro Lights, these party workers were not going to let a mere negative poll destroy an evening of drinking on the Sabbath.

The rumours that Brown may want to use his opinion poll "bounce" to opt for an early election in 2008 has galvanised rather than alarmed Conservative Party headquarters. A shadow cabinet member says: "I was slightly surprised, but understand he's keeping his options open. Now that the idea of a spring election is out there he will look decidedly 'chicken' if he doesn't do anything about it. The press may well push him into going with it."

A researcher is equally contemplative: "There is a realisation that the fight really does start now. We've all been shadow boxing. The mood is a little nervous because he will attempt some eye-catching stuff, but that's as expected. We are going to keep it positive." The spring election enthusiasts, especially the young contingent in party HQ, have apparently "gone all Dunkirk thinking about it".

The diary has deliberately been left a little blank so that David Cameron can react to any dramatic announcements by Brown. The Tories appreciate that the new man in No 10 will try to change his image, but reckon the task of juggling a new job, an uncomfortable grin and a delightfully school-marm deputy leader will have the new Prime Minister throwing his clunking fist out the pram. Brown is used to controlling a small coterie of close advisers and friends, and coping with an entire cabinet could frustrate him.

The Tories' new head of communications, Andy Coulson, starts on 9 July, and in the meantime few changes in the party machine will be made. An aide says: "Brown will try to look fresh and youthful, so we will definitely be putting up more of the young MPs on television such as Ed Vaizey, and will deploy the female elements." Female elements . . .?!

United against a common foe, a smattering of Brown-supporting House of Commons workers who would occasionally chat or share a pint with Tories in the bars of Westminster have gone quiet. This is war.

Only last week, the Chief Whip recommended at the parliamentary party briefing that everyone reads a copy of Tom Bower's biography of Gordon Brown. Know thine enemy. "By January pretty much everything will be ready," says an aide. "We don't want to do fantasy politics for two years. Christ, we've done it for a decade and it's tiresome. People need a clearer statement of what we stand for and that is why we are pushing all our policies out there."

The Tories think Brown will look increasingly shoddy and were pleased with his lifeless performance on BBC's Newsnight, when he continually nibbled his nails and gnawed at what's left of his cuticles.

"He may steal some of our ideas, he's done it already, but he will not be able to take on board a large amount of what we are to come out with because he can't do it, and he will not have the backing of his own party," says one strategist. "The alternative is us not saying anything. That is ridiculous. It will all be spewed out in a gush of policy." Prepare for the historic Rivers of Policy speech. One senior Tory forecasts mass tedium. "We have such thorough, detailed policy coming up, I fear we may actually bore people with how heavyweight it is." Numbing the minds of the electorate is a radical strategy.

Perfect gift

Conservatives were thrilled by the appointment of Harriet Harman as deputy Labour leader, seeing her as a rather soulless individual. Harman is a gift and her controversial political history will not be a hindrance. "Promoted and sidelined in one hour - that's great for us," chirrups a senior aide.

That even the razor-sharp, witty, press Camerettes have yet to come up with something deliciously bitchy to say about Harman's hair or wardrobe shows just how excruciatingly insipid she is. Although one admirable press cat predicts Harman going down the sorry road of "statement jewellery".

The one problem would have been Alan Johnson. "Johnson would have been a nightmare, with all his postman, nice-guy, wrap-around-shades, looks-like-your-uncle ways. He was seen as real, and we were more than aware of that," says a press officer. "A Brown-Johnson, bad cop-good cop routine could have been tricky."

Ultimately, both parties' electoral fortunes will depend in large part on money. A good start for a possible bulging war chest is the much-anticipated, £325-ticket Conservative sum mer ball on 2 July in the conservatory of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

How they will beat this year's "winter ball" entertainment is anyone's guess: first a girl in a white catsuit played an electric violin, then a potty-mouthed transvestite in a gold dress belted out Dolly Parton's "Nine to Five", only to be outdone by a talented woman in a fluorescent bikini who did bendy tricks with a dozen hula hoops.

The theme on Monday evening is "English summer" - so probably no Parton then.