The No 10 express

The Tories are preparing for office - but quietly, soberly, and with no triumphal champers

Since their local and mayoral election triumph, Tory MPs have been disciplined, obeying orders and not looking excitable or pleased. It's a bit of a shame, really. If they were Portsmouth Football Club, or slightly Continental, they would have taken to the streets last Friday in an open-top Routemaster customised by Jeremy Clarkson, hugging each other, holding Dave aloft, slugging organic Wickham Fumé wine from Hampshire and playing the Ting Tings at full volume. Back to party headquarters for champagne on ice and Ed Vaizey on air guitar.

Alas, not a bit of it. Be they well-lunched or gym-toned Tory hips, they must not swagger. No triumphalism, no sneering, no ducking, no diving, no bombing, no petting . . .

So, what now? The tactics of how to play out the next 18 months are being worked out. Tories are aware that they have to look confident and prepared for government, but not too prepared.

The waste speech and "simple Conservative principles of good housekeeping" were a change of tone and, most MPs agree, a necessary one. A Cameron aide sums it up: "The first two and a half years have been about detoxifying. David's own view was that if he had started talking about waste in 2005, Labour would have said the Tories are all about cost-cutting. The new mood of public gloom about Labour has finally given us the liberty to address real issues." Some Tories wanted Cameron to get on to this ground earlier, but there's time before the election.

This past week, there has also been a historical return to words associated with Lady Thatcher. Previously, Cameron had said very little about her, as he did not want to look like a Thatcher Tory Boy. But, having gained more confidence, and with Labour in apparent meltdown, he can return to subjects he strayed from in the past: Tory themes he knows are still popular.

Conservative Party headquarters knows this will rile the government. The Prime Minister has again described Cameron as "a shallow salesman", using the description as a term of abuse. It's extremely silly of Brown; how many voters in this country could be described as salesman? Are they all shallow, or just Cameron?

One thing the Tories are certain of is that the Labour brand has suffered. Behind closed doors they are all discussing it fervently. "There is much talk of Brown stepping down," says one senior Tory. "We are not convinced he will, though. Not only because he'll have to be dragged out, but because [David] Miliband's not ready. He's quite happy to let Brown ride the storm. James Purnell, no doubt, feels the same."

The real test begins

Members of the shadow cabinet are desperately searching for rhetoric that doesn't suggest they think any form of triumph is in the bag. When I spoke to a shadow minister the other day, he got quite tongue-tied, trying to explain the path from now on: "It will all be about one vision, one direction . . . ehh decision . . ."

It was at this point that he realised he may have been quoting some Freddie Mercury lyrics* and started on about Incapacity Benefit. He looked relieved when I said I'd get us both a stiff drink.

Others are slightly more confident: "We know that Gordon Brown's only hope is to expose us over lack of substance."

The early years of the Blair government have been scrutinised by strategists. "Lab our will be looking at the mistakes we made in the 1990s," says one, "and we've certainly been looking at the mistakes Blair made." He sums up: "We need to make sure that we are not so managed into government that when we get into government we don't manage to govern" - a line that may make more sense on a second reading.

One researcher is prepared to go even further and comment on a Cameron government, though he does, of course, add the complacency clause. "We know where Blair went wrong. I perceive a Cameron leadership as different, rather than a suck-it-and-see, mediocre Blair way.

"We want a brave, progressive government - one we are prepared for."

Cameron was due to travel north to Ayr on Friday. That is where the real test begins; winning back seats in Sunderland is simple compared to Scotland. That is a whole different ball game . . .

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?