POLITICS

Before he headed north to Blackpool, former Guards captain Iain Duncan Smith told me he was well aware that his party conference might be overshadowed by military activity in the wider world.

He had barely unpacked his toothbrush before it started. A pity because, as he had feared, it upended his hopes of focusing public attention during his week by the sea on the need for better public services.

In the present public mood, that hope translates, more than anything else, into a better healthcare system - though not necessarily a better NHS.

Mr Duncan Smith and his allies are determined to open up the agenda, as Dr Liam Fox - among others - indicated on eve-of-conference TV.

'What we need to look at is to compare Britain with, say, France or Germany. You'll find that what we spend in terms of state spending is roughly similar. The gap between us comes because in France, Germany and other countries they are willing to spend more of their post-tax income topping that up, making sure There is greater access to other services, ' Dr Fox told GMTV's incredibly early Sunday programme.

I heard similar sentiments from IDS - 'Smithy', as they are trying to re-brand him - as I had done a day or so before from Michael Ancram, the new Tory deputy leader.

What do people in his Devizes constituency talk about first? Not terrorism, it seems: 'They mention hospitals first because everyone I know has a story to tell of someone who has not been able to get into hospital. They talk about people on trolleys for 24 hours when they arrive, dirty hospitals too, ' said Mr Ancram.

Do I hear you saying, 'You had four years in opposition to work that out, chummie'? Mr Ancram is trying not to be disloyal to William Hague. After all, he was his party chair. But the thrust of his remarks suggests that the Hague campaign failed to connect with voter concerns at a level where they felt it mattered to them.

It is hard to say you want to improve schools, hospitals and public transport when you also say you want to cut public spending.

Actually you can, as Michael Howard is already showing in his new post of shadow chancellor. At least he's stopped sulking, now that Hague (who double-crossed him over the leadership) has fallen under the 88 bus.

Here's how I predict the new Tory message will shape up over the next year or two under the nocturnal 'something of the night' Howardian influence. Let's call it the Vampire Strategy. Lower taxes and public spending allow the economy to work more efficiently and thus create more wealth. That money in turn can be used to provide better services, albeit ones where choice and diversity of provision will replace monopoly supply.

That is, more private hospitals and services, more insurance-based finance, most of it company-sponsored, rather than the ad hoc one-off payments which many people make when they 'go private'. 'More creative thinking' is the current euphemism.

To make progress in public opinion, that pitch requires the Milburn reforms to falter. That may happen as, for instance, an ultra-despairing assessment of the NHS's prospects suggested in Sunday's Observer.

Meanwhile we have straightforward Mr Ancram. Not much of the night about him: 'We had sophisticated health policies. . . but people didn't feel we were talking about their hospital or their local GP's surgery, ' says Our Man in Devizes.He ducks specific questions about the insurance 'top-up' options. Instead, like his Somerset neighbour, Dr Fox, he refers to the brilliant alternatives across the Channel.

On Sunday morning TV, Foxy was stirring it up between Blairite pragmatism and Milburnian dogmatism. 'I think the prime minister is moving in the right direction. I do not think he'll be allowed by his own party to move far enough to be able to satisfy the test he has set for himself to provide a world-class service, ' he said several times in different ways.

GMTV's interviewer, Steve Richards, gallantly predicted that Foxy would be called a right-wing lunatic, accused of privatising healthcare. That may not wash for long.