Astride a Star Trek set, William Hague delighted the Conservative conference, though on health he may get a rougher ride from voters than he did from delegates, reports Lyn Whitfield

The Conservatives were in super-confident mood in Bournemouth. The government's problems with the Dome, the fuel crisis and the pensioners'revolt meant the leadership could use the party's buoyancy in the opinon polls to talk up its chances of actually winning the next general election.

Confidence oozed from Conservative leader William Hague before the health debate as he took questions from an adoring audience.

Bouncing around the stage - billed as looking like something from Star Trek, but actually bearing more resemblance to a second-hand greenhouse - he boomed: 'We have to be ready to answer questions. We have to be ready to govern. '

The questions Mr Hague is asked by the electorate are likely to be rather tougher than those posed by a long line of potential parliamentary candidates. And voters are less likely to beam quite so happily at the answers.

Or clap so hard.

The health question, for example, hardly caused Mr Hague many problems. A local primary care manager said a party leader from Teignbridge paid an assistant£28,000 - while her daughter worked nightshifts on a local hospital ward for£16,000. Would Mr Hague make sure money went to the right places when he was in government?

Mr Hague clearly believes his party has a good story to tell on health. Instead of just saying 'yes' to this question, or having a go at NHS bureaucracy - although he did both - he accused the government of having 'ideological blinkers on' when it came to health.

'The Labour Party may have believed this to be their subject over the past few years. But I believe their failure has been so disgraceful we have a great opportunity on health, 'he said.

The Conservatives are now openly talking about more than just spending the money the Labour Party has promised for the NHS.

As shadow chancellor Michael Portillo made clear in a speech as rapturously received as Mr Hague's performance, the party is now openly talking about a major expansion of private provision.

Labour has claimed for months that the Conservatives' Patient's Guarantee on maximum waiting times for serious conditions will push more people into private insurance.

Labour claims that this will come to include cataracts and hip operations and other relatively simple, low-cost procedures.

Some members of the Conservative health team have done little to deny this. Philip Hammond told Parliament last session that he expected the patients' guarantee to push the private insurance market into providing new, cheaper products for people who no longer needed to worry about major problems being dealt with by the NHS.

In Bournemouth, Mr Portillo put the Conservative's policy openly on view.

'Our neighbours in Europe, 'he said, 'think we are mad not to encourage people to put money into health.

'So, we will put more money into the health service and we will attract more funds on top as well. '

This, he said, would 'break down the Berlin Wall between private and public care. '

The explicit admission that the Tories are looking to expand the private sector opens them to the charge, already renewed by Labour last week, that they will create a two-tier health system.

The response, set out in bombastic style by shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox is, firstly, that nobody will lose out if the total amount of spending on health rises. Secondly, nobody will be forced to go private, but the new system will promote choice for all. Thirdly it is outdated 'ideology' that prompts Labour to make the charge.

'Labour will oppose us, just as they opposed Conservative trade union reforms which gave individuals more power and just as they opposed Margaret Thatcher's council house sale which gave so many a share in prosperity, 'he claimed.

'Labour supports the state. We support individuals. A better NHS and an expanded private healthcare sector in real partnership can benefit all our people. '

Cue, to more applause, calls for a return of matron and a ban on mere slips of healthcare assistants calling older patients by their first names.

Dr Fox's more thoughtful deputy, Mr Hammond, put the case more subtly to HSJ.

The Labour government's promise of£68bn health spending by 2003-04 would 'provide a sticking plaster' for a 'holed vessel'and stop it sinking, he said. But it would not allow for expansion. With the fuel crisis showing that voters are at the limit of their tolerance for tax, more money will have to come from the private purse.

As to two tiers, the charge baffles Mr Hammond. If the NHS is there to meet everybody's needs, why should it matter if some people pay for more luxurious conditions or faster treatment? Nobody, he says, claims there should be complete equality in housing or consumer goods, such as cars. 'Only an extreme Stalinist' would be happy with a small car as long as nobody got a bigger one.

With the Labour party pledged to defend the founding principles of the NHS, it will be fascinating to see who wins this argument where it matters - at the ballot box.

Oh I do love to be beside. . . 6ft policemen, Jim Davidson and party pants?

Bournemouth, with its genteel image, should have suited the Conservative Party, with its twinset and pearl wing.

But both were struggling to cope with the huge press of delegates and the even larger press of police and security people surrounding its annual conference last week.

Where the Liberal Democrats, rather endearingly, left the French and Saunders posters up outside the Bournemouth International Centre two weeks ago, and let children's swimming lessons continue in its pool, the Tories had plastered the BIC with pictures of William Hague and swimming had surrendered to security.

Indeed, so prevalent was the security that even the ice-cream parlour at the nearby Pavilion had been converted into a security clearance operation, complete with baggage scanners and 6ft policemen. Inside the BIC, it was possible to sample a few delights of the seaside.

There was red, white and blue Tory rock in union flag stripes on the 'winning the next election' stand. Disappointingly, the stand had none of the 'presents for a loved one' promised on the party website. But it did have a fine selection of keep-the-pound umbrellas, T-shirts and round objects looking suspiciously like beer mats. The perfect present for a beloved Mr Hague, perhaps.

Then, there was entertainment. Session chairs repeatedly plugged a 4. 45 event on the media with added celebrities! Celebrities such as Patti Boulaye, Mike Yarwood, Jim Davidson and Jan Leeming. Happening. But even one of the speakers advertising these delights admitted that at 4. 45 most delegates would be getting changed 'ready for the first drink of the evening. 'Well, if you need to get through 14 pints. . .

And what would the Tory ladies be changing into? Perhaps the true blue knickers on the Politicos book stall, marked 'I love William Hague, ''I love Michael Portillo' and. . .

'I love Ann Widdecombe. 'Perhaps the wearers of the twin sets and pearls are more liberated than they look.