POLITICS

Day after day, it seems to ministers, the newspapers are trying to take great chunks out of the NHS. 'Your money or your life, ' screams the Daily Mail , cheerfully ripping off a yarn about hospital patients paying for drugs which had appeared the previous day in the ever-dodgier Sunday Times .

It was enough to get health secretary Alan Milburn out of his bed early on Monday to assure Radio 4 listeners that the creation of NICE and the service frameworks will mean national standards and an end to the 'lottery' over the issue of drugs in the NHS. 'For the first time, because we have established these new arrangements, we will have a single point providing authoritative guidance about which treatment works best for which patient, ' he soothed.

It was all calm-and-in-control, the Milburn style when he's not playing Bouncer Milburn, throwing Tory tearaways out of his night-club or setting the dogs on what he likes to call 'dodgy docs'. In fact, Bouncer tells his chums, he's very cheerful. 'A lot of fun, really.'

All the same, he does feel he's facing a media feeding frenzy, directed by newspapers like the Mail and Daily Telegraph, which are determined to undermine faith in the NHS so that more and more of their readers will buy private health insurance. Most of the drugs they highlighted this week, Taxol and Taxotere for instance, are on NICE's priority list.

I believe in cock-up, not conspiracy theory: the papers aren't that cute - they just know that the NHS is a good scare story they can always rely on once Gary Glitter has been locked up. In any case, it was the proNHS Guardian which was calling for an emergency winter package - before a snowflake has fallen.

It also ran the 'NHS is£1bn in debt' story on the basis of the financial management survey which suggested a£200m debt this year. HSJ reported it last week. As an ex-chief secretary to the Treasury, Milburn is grumpy about that story, too: most of that money, he believes, is either working capital or - some£600m of it - cash set aside to pay possible negligence claims from patients over the coming decade.

It may never happen. All the same, I did notice a£300,000 settlement this past week to the family of a popular journalist (I didn't know her) whose cancer had been misdiagnosed: that's an awful lot of money which still doesn't bring mummy back.

I suppose it's a form of what the Treasury calls 'hypothecation' and sensible MPs call 'ring-fencing' when they're trying to explain it on Radio 4. It was one of the sub-plots of last week because Gordon Brown used his pre-Budget report to indulge in a bit of it. He ringfenced extra petrol duty to help transport improvements, and did the same to tobacco taxes: the extra£300m next year will go to fight cancer.

In the press gallery scrum behind the Commons I spotted that - even before the leader writers got excited - and asked a very senior Treasury man whether it signalled a change of heart.

The Lib Dems are always hypothecating taxes, and Neil Kinnock was planning to ringfence the entire NHS, but Treasury officials would probably have dissuaded them.

Actually there was another negative hypothecation.

By giving over-75s their TV licence free, Mr Brown promised to make up the BBC's lost£300m in revenue, so he's replaced a TV poll tax with a Treasury grant: I predict long-term trouble on that. The prosaic answer from my Treasury chum is that last week's ringfences were 'limited exceptions', though this government has done more of it than most - John Prescott's road congestion taxes (if they ever happen) to name but one example. Milburn and Brown used to discuss them in their Treasury days, and Brown, the brooding intellectual, is enough of a populist to spot a cheap winner.

Not populist enough to come up with more loot, mind you. A Commons debate on NICE the other day showed how much expectation rests on Milburn's ability to deliver both better organisation - a bigger bang for the NHS buck, and more bucks - Milburn feels that being health secretary these days is increasingly like being home secretary at any time. You never know what's going to hit you tomorrow.

Why, I wonder? Perhaps because both ministries are about matters of life and death - health in one case, crime in the other, the Bristol Royal Infirmary case somewhere in between.