POLITICS

Published: 26/09/2002, Volume II2, No. 5824 Page 19

As Estelle Morris was dragged deeper into the row over A-level results at the weekend, a battle-hardened LibDem peer, once a Labour MP, turned and asked me, 'Is this the moment when Labour's luck finally deserts it?'

I said I didn't think so because the dispute is mainly between arms-length education agencies with acronyms we barely recognise, not between politicians. Ms Morris seems such a wholesome figure that mud will surely find it hard to stick.

I may be proved wrong, but it has been a good question in a week in which NHS waiting-list mud has failed to stick to the less saintly Minister Milburn along with the week's other health-horror mud - obese kids and an interesting link alleged between juvenile asthma and antibiotics in pregnancy.

It has also been relevant here at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton where party activists - well some of them - really believe then could now displace the Tories as No. 2 party.

Then who knows? Prime Minister Kennedy within eight years, according to the kind of optimists who are undeterred by the failure of the German Liberals this week to recapture third-party ground lost to the Greens.

As you may have seen in the run-up to Brighton, much of the Lib Dems' brain-power (they really have a lot nowadays) has been devoted to ambitious plans to revitalise public services, notably healthcare.

The man behind the grandly titled public service policy commission is my old Guardian colleague, now an MEP, Chris Huhne. His most eye-catching proposal is to turn national insurance contributions into an earmarked 'health contribution' so voters can see where their taxes are going. The idea is to boost public support and understanding.

When I asked him how badly a recession would dent that as a revenue source, Chris had the grace to admit that the NHS would always need top-ups from central government.

But that is not his plan's only problem, because in the name of devolved decisionmaking the Lib Dem plan also urged local and regional tax powers borrowing rights too - to allow 'variations' in levels of investment and spending.

Local control and responsiveness always seems attractive on paper. That is what happens in the US. But would British voters tolerate a widening health gap between affluent Kensington and poorer Keighley? I doubt it.

Chris's answer is to 'guarantee basic standards across the country' but have them agreed between the different layers of government 'rather than dictated'by future Minister Milburns. Try as I may, I can't see how this avoids re-opening the postcode lottery.

As you would expect, the Lib Dem plan contains wholesome ideas about patient choice and enhanced information on health options - electronic personal health plans and lifestyle choices to reduce those growing numbers of obese kids - plus websites for checking waiting times and lists.

Excellent.But what strikes me as we enter the conference season is how similar so much of the rhetoric between the main parties now sounds on this subject. Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith has just issued a new call to save the NHS through decentralisation of decisions and control - something Alan Milburn also protests his determination to bring about.

I hesitate to call it an emerging consensus, not least because the Tories are edging towards a private or social insurance solution for NHS funding - if they regain power any time soon.

By that time the Brown-Blair formula - higher public spending through taxes (higher 'redistributive' taxes too, Mr Blair half-hinted the other day) - will either have worked, or not.

I cannot leave Brighton, however, without mention of a Sunday paper interview given by Lib Dem health spokesman Dr Evan Harris. Mischievously asked about Charles Kennedy's drinking habits Dr H grandly replied: 'I am the health spokesman of the party and no one has ever discussed it with me.'

I have never seen Mr Kennedy the worse for wear, though he is not a member of the Band of Hope.But I can question Dr Harris's powers of observation.He popped his head into a cab to ask driver the way to a fringe meeting here and put his face within a foot of the passenger.

He failed to notice me.