Despite persistent conference rumours in Bournemouth, I was completely wrong-footed by Frank Dobson's change of heart over the London mayor's job. I was not alone. The night before it emerged in the Sunday Telegraph , Jack Straw said on Radio 4's Any Questions that Nick Raynsford, the minister who had just declared his candidature, would make a 'brilliant' mayor.
Not now, he won't. Dobbo has thought it over and decided that Jeffrey Archer and Ken Livingstone are 'two people who have to be stopped'. He's sorted out family privacy problems (wife Janet has left her Hackney council job) and bowed to pressure from London MPs and activists.
He's not Blair's official champion - that would be damaging. But he's close to being it. I am assured that he will stay on as health secretary until Labour has picked him or Ken as candidate in mid-November when (I suspect) the People's Mo will take over at the DoH.
All the same, I couldn't help smiling when I heard Dick Whittington getting into his stride at the conference rostrum. Mr Dobson has taken to using Blairite language (the NHS is threatened by 'the forces of conservatism' from both right and left, it seems) and to including the loyal 'as Tony Blair said' phrase.
The PM may have declared that 'the class war is over' - but not while Dobbo's alive, it isn't. He railed against the Tory denial that inequalities in health exist. He rejoiced in the fact that the new NHS walk-in centre in Birmingham has taken over premises vacated by the private sector ('who says the NHS can't compete and can't be top quality?'). He warned that the wicked Hague-ites still plot to privatise the whole service, which they don't.
This was no conference pandering to the rank and file, though it is fascinating to see how the likes of Dobson, Gordon Brown and John Prescott can easily find the party's G-spot in a way that eludes Mr Blair.
At a fringe meeting to extol the importance of genetic research to the NHS, he warned against the dangers of 'hereditary healthcare'.
What? Yes, the idea that private insurance companies won't take on people with 'pre-existing conditions' and prefer to cherry-pick the healthy and better off. Genetic testing and a comprehensive NHS will 'deal a body-blow to the Tory Party and Tory newspapers, the advocates of private insurance-based healthcare systems'.
This is all futuristic stuff, and I wish I could be so confident of the outcome. But what of the here and now?
You are better placed than me to judge the spate of NHS announcements from Messrs Blair and Dobson. I was pleased to see the eternal Cinderella service - mental health - getting some attention (press packs and all), and await the long-term cost consequences of ever-wider NHS Direct. Cheaper or dearer? We shall find out.
But the issue which will resonate from a pretty bland conference was Blair's 'declaration of war on establishment elites', as the Daily Telegraph put it. That wasn't quite what the boss meant. Next day he explained that his vision of a classless meritocracy will also assail 'the forces of conservatism' within Labour and the TUC's own ranks, too. But on this occasion the British Medical Association was right to take it more personally than the executive of Unison.
As noted here before, Blair is cross with the BMA. He is saying (echoed by Dobbo) that he does not intend to allow the medics to obstruct the government's deployment of clinical audit, clinical excellence and those patient-friendly NHS appointment systems which are - in theory - designed to combine consumer power with effective use of resources, notably money.
Well, good luck to them. Personally, I found the PM's speech (and I am not the only one) a little too dismissive of minority rights and a little too strong on authoritarian populism, which is very much New Labour's style: focus groups and The Sun . Me? I'm only a wishywashy, middle-class pinko, but occasionally it ought to worry a thoughtful, unwishy-washy socialist like His Dobship.