Cripes! We might win. What on earth are we going to do then? No, that was not the inimitable Boris Johnson contemplating this week’s mayoral showdown with Ken Livingstone. It was one of David Cameron’s shadow team on the dawning prospect of a Conservative return to government.

All right, I admit my Tory friend did not actually say “cripes”. Mr Johnson, thankfully, is unique in his studied reverence for the playground idiom of Greyfriars School. But the shared sense of shock is real. Mr Johnson, I would guess, wakes up in a cold sweat at the idea of running one of the world’s great cities. Likewise, smart Tories shiver at the thought that within a year or two their party may be governing the country.

I am not predicting the outcome of the general election. For one thing, mid-2010 now looks the most likely date for it. The speed with which Gordon Brown has fallen from the dizzy heights of last summer should be sufficient caution against such forecasts. Where now, I sometimes wonder, are those who declared Mr Brown had rescued his party, at a stroke, from the political debauchery of the Blair years?

Mr Livingstone could change the mood again by winning a third term. The opinion polls look more unreliable than usual. As far as I can tell, the outcome of the mayoral contest depends on which of the two frontrunners cajoles more of his supporters to the polling stations.

Something, though, has changed in the wider political landscape. In the aftermath of the aborted election last autumn, it was quite possible to see Mr Brown being defeated. After all, a swing of 2 per cent to the Tories would rob Labour of its majority.

It was much harder to conjure up the image of a smiling Mr Cameron crossing the threshold of No 10. Depending on how you calculate it, the Tory leader needs a swing of up to 10 per cent to gain an outright majority. That would be a shift of 1997 proportions.

So, until recently, even those close to the leader thought in terms of two elections to get into Downing Street. The shrewd money was on a hung parliament.

Now? An outright Tory victory no longer seems impossible. It is not so much that there has been a national upsurge of support for the opposition, rather a feeling that the intermingling of arrogance and exhaustion that has lately described the government could presage an irresistible tide.

You catch something of that mood in Whitehall. Senior officials have begun to take a close interest in the policy initiatives that spew daily from Tory HQ. Mandarins closely associated with the present regime are pondering how to move on to more neutral ground. A sensible precaution. They know who they are, I have heard one Tory say, and so do we.

All cause for Conservative celebration, you might think? Yes, and no. After a decade and more in the wilderness, the prospect of power should spark as much trepidation as excitement. For one thing, it would be a good idea if the party had some sort of plan for government, even if only a plan to do nothing very much at all.

Mr Cameron scoffs at the suggestion he is unprepared. So too does George Osborne, who has spent the past two years putting backbone into the Conservatives’ approach to economics. What about all those speeches and initiatives, they protest? Even Mr Brown has been copying us. A plethora of policies, though, is not the same as a plan for government.

Most of what Messrs Cameron and Osborne – and it does look very much a team effort – have been doing is political positioning. Tories are green; they celebrate diversity; they care about social cohesion; they believe in the health service; and, apropos the 10p income tax rate, they are on the side of the poor. The aim, broadly speaking, is to reunite the party with the values of the middling majority.

Two advantages flow from cuddlier Conservatism. First, it helps shed the 1990s image of the nasty party. Paradoxically, it also allows the party to play to traditional strengths. If the country thinks the Tories have reclaimed their basic decency it will be more receptive to tough messages on crime and immigration.

Missing in all this, though, is a hierarchy of priorities: the more policies the Conservatives produce, the less clear it becomes exactly what they would do during a first term.

There are also contradictions. Mr Osborne protests otherwise, but if you add up all the messages on everything from health to defence to inheritance tax, they just do not tally with an economic strategy of paying down the national debt, cutting taxes and protecting vital services. Something has to give.

As far as abroad is concerned, as things stand Mr Cameron’s first act would be to start an acrimonious and unwinnable fight to overturn the treaty of Lisbon and withdraw Britain from the European Union’s social chapter. That, not to put too fine a point on it, would be barmy.

The Tories have time to sort some of these things out, but not too much. Once people begin to look at the party as a government-in-waiting, they will be less tolerant of the confusions and contradictions. Therein lies another paradox: the better Mr Cameron does, the tougher it will get.

philip.stephens@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/stephens

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