POLITICS MICHAEL WHITE

On a sunny afternoon last week I sat in the handsome first-floor drawing room at 11 Downing Street, listening to the chancellor recap on the government's achievements and the changes due to kick in on 1 April or soon after.

They include better breast cancer services and free eye-tests restored for 1.5 million oldsters, as well as all that extra cash coming on stream for the NHS in general. New Labour is morbidly anxious that we should not forget what it's doing for us all. 'When this government makes promises, we keep them,' Messers Blair, Brown and Dobson kept saying as Easter loomed. It is this month's slogan.

All the same, none of the announcements was, strictly speaking, new and there was a war going on in the Balkans. 'Chancellor, you're wasting your breath today,' I murmured to myself. Next morning there was 'Bomb. Bomb, Bomb', in The Sun and six pages of war news in the broadsheets. But not much Iron Gordon.

The same could be said of the Bottomley-esque flood of worthy press releases from the Department of Health. Though I did spot coverage for Tessa Jowell's initiative to tackle obesity (17 per cent of blokes and 20 per cent of women are now obese, 4 per cent up on the Tories), not much attention was given to the formal launch of primary care groups or Dobbo's pet project, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, which is going to change our medical lives a lot.

Yet in all this flurry of activity, medical and military, the politicians expended disproportionate energy - yet again - on the waiting-list war, about as ancient and futile a conflict as the true ownership of Kosovo. Why do they do it? I asked myself, when everyone knows it's a mug's game.

The immediate answer was that the government that keeps its promises was about to announce that, yes, hospital waiting lists are at last lower than they were when Tony Blair marched into Downing Street amid those waving flags: at 1,119,700 in February they were 38,000 below the May 1997 figure, 193,000 down on last April and the lowest since December 1996 - and one month ahead of target. Dobbo has until election day - probably June 2001, just 26 months away - to get the lists 100,000 lower, as Labour promised in its five early pledges.

But is it true? At health questions in the Commons, Tory and Lib Dem MPs tried to spoil the party. More wounding, so did the British Medical Association, whose senior spokesmen were caught muttering about 'rising emergency admissions, lengthening queues for outpatient clinics and pressure to make progress on waiting lists'.

This is more or less what Ann Widdecombe had said in a pre-emptive air strike on Camp Dobson the previous week.

'The real waiting list stands some 480,000 higher than Labour claim. They have fiddled the figures and distorted clinical priorities to make it appear that their pledges have been met,' she explained.

Why? Chiefly because 'the waiting list to get on the waiting list' is up by 220,500, almost double the 1997 figures according to Tory analysis, but also because there has been a withdrawal of routine operations, administrative weeding of the lists (490,000 names removed in line with standard practice, John Denham told MPs), reduced referral rates from GPs etc.

But it was against Miss Widdecombe that Mr Dobson's spear carrier, Joe 'Enforcer' McCrea, launched his outraged special adviser rebuttal.

A new category of press release this, it stressed two basic points: that there has been no change in waiting-list policies, and where there have been adverse changes in practice Dobbo deplores them. 'I would not have thought any clinician worth his or her salt would allow themselves to be leaned on by NHS managers,' the Enforcer quoted the Boss as telling medics.

Fine, fine, go tell the chief executive to take a jump, Doc. But in reality we are all leaned on by management sometimes: doctors, columnists and, I dare say, even Tony Blair's Cabinet ministers.