POLITICS

Published: 10/10/2002, Volume II2, No.5826 Page 21

In the annual dash from one seaside resort beginning with B to the next, the conscientious columnist seeks ways of avoiding troubling the printer with the over-worked words 'foundation hospital' or 'Edwina'.

When the Tories got in on the foundation act as they headed for their three conference catwalks in Bournemouth, it proves impossible - though still worth the try.

Determined not to be star-struck by Tony Blair's 'best when We are bold' speech on the need for ever-faster public service reform, let alone by Bill Clinton's guest appearance, I was alarmed mid-week by the implications of the 2001 census findings for local authority services, including personal social services.

If population growth is less than predicted and is actually static or falling in some areas, not just in the ex-industrial north (wealthy Westminster has 181,000 people, 63,000 fewer than believed) then funding will be sharply cut by central government. It was not a story that seriously took off - not yet.

So far as I could see, more attention was paid to Alan Milburn's Blackpool 'black eye', which loutish reporters assumed he had been given by the chancellor to keep him on message.

The health secretary actually did it himself rubbing his eye during a bout of speech writing.

Overall, a good seaside week for Mr Milburn, where he was more evident in conference fringe meetings than on the platform - a sensible priority. Iain Duncan Smith, whom I caught up with in the BBC make-up room before his appearance on Breakfast with Frost, should be so lucky.

Watching Mr Blair, it had struck me (and Tory MPs I spoke to later) that the presentational gloss is so powerful that it is hard to resist, even though to many voters reality is much less glossy. Next to the former US president, Mr Blair might once have looked and sounded like a country hick, as Arkansas's Mr Clinton did when I first heard him at the Democratic convention in 1988. But this was Mr Blair at the height of his powers.

In contrast, IDS arrived in Bournemouth ( BoMo to the ad-men) on the back foot, his party Edwina-battered and restless, the polls awful. 'We can't just rub along and hope for the best. That is what we did with Hague after 1997 and it was a disaster, ' one Hezza-turnedClarke MP warned me.

Under a protective pink sheet in Frostie's make-up chair (us baldies need a decent repair job), the Tory leader explained how he had given his education plans exclusively to a Sunday paper.

It had preferred to print his attack on John Major (remember, he's a Thatcherite, so it wasn't her fault) for messing up the country in 1990-97. They also used some horrid photos of him - IDS that is.

On Monday, shadow health spokesman Dr Liam Fox revealed the Tories' health plans:

foundation status for all hospitals, not just the big metropolitan flagships - decentralisation rules OK. Compulsory charges for GP visits have been ruled out after all, though there is talk of fining people who do not turn up for medical appointments. Some 15 million misses a year and very annoying, but I doubt if fines will much affect the feckless.

Mr Duncan Smith insists he is in charge and the strategy is in place. No point in rushing out detailed policies until closer to the election, the seaside soothsayers explain. True, as far as it goes.

The word is that he wants to do for qualityof-life issues, notably public services, what his heroine promised to do for the economy in 1976 and did in the 1980s.

It will be much harder for him to get public attention than it was for her in the 1970s, when the Wilson/Callaghan Labour governments reeled from week to week.

As I type, Radio 4's Today is reporting a BBC survey of NHS managers' secret fears under constant ministerial bullying. 'A very harsh regime, ' the survey suggests.

NHS chief executive Nigel Crisp's soothing, decentralising words of encouragement - 'I think managers are starting to do exceptionally well' - do not allay concerns.But it is not enough to rescue IDS unless the system implodes.

And do not forget: no names, Gordon, but Mr Milburn faces ministerial bullying, too.