Wow! Some Christmas break. The Blair government has been shaken in a way which we all would have regarded as pure Jeffrey Archer if we'd read it in an airport departure lounge just a month ago. As Peter Mandelson himself put it in that resignation letter, 'I can hardly believe I am writing this...'
The effect on the Department of Health has been pretty dramatic, too. Frank Dobson's strong team survived the July reshuffle almost intact when Stephen Byers, not Alan Milburn, went (briefly as it turned out) to the Treasury No.2 spot. Paul Boateng left in the Ron Davies fallout, in came John Hutton. Now Hutton's flatmate, Milburn, has entered Cabinet - as promised - in Byers' barely warmed chair.
Hutton is settling in well, but it is a serious double blow to sustain with a major NHS reorganisation (etc) bill due to reach the Commons in a few weeks. Not to mention the restlessness in tabloidland over nurses' pay ('Lack of nurses causes NHS bed crisis' and 'Queue here for misery' screamed the Daily Mail) just when this winter looks like being much nastier than last year's.
John Denham, who has moved downstairs from the Department of Social Security, may have to learn his brief as a flu epidemic rages and bed shortages/waiting lists trigger a tabloid epidemic. How will he cope? Probably pretty well is the consensus. Dobson knows and likes him, worked with him when they were both concerned with local government and (more recently) over improving services for old people. He lobbied to get him.
'John was in a team which briefed against each other [in the Harriet Harman/Frank Field era]. He survived all that and got his pension proposals through, so he should be fine in a team which doesn't behave that way,' one of my chums explained. 'He really gets into the detail - that's how he gets his rocks off. He's a nuts and bolts man,' said a mixed-metaphor specialist.
A flare for detail will be needed with the bill that Minister Milburn had been preparing for. Contrary to some claims, primary care groups can be set up within existing legislation, as sub-committees of health authorities, though freestanding primary care trusts, merged with community health services ('it makes better sense') do need the bill.
A dangerous sup-plot exists in the clauses to end the pharmaceutical industry's 'gentleman's agreement' on drug prices - to the greatest alarm of UK, not US, manufacturers. There will also be trouble with the medics on tighter regulation and public accountability under the Commission for Health Improvement.
What sort of chap is he, anyway? A Devon boy who retains his West Country burr, aged 45, a chemistry graduate who became a professional voluntary worker (War on Want, that sort of thing), a city/county councillor in Hampshire, charming when so minded. And (I have always felt) basically shy.
You would not think that from his fiery political past. He got stuck into politics at Southampton University and became a thorn in the flesh of Bob Mitchell, local Old Labour MP who eventually defected to the SDP after the Bennite Denham was picked (over Bryan Gould) for his Itchen seat in 1980. Between them they split the Labour vote and let in Tory Chris Chope from 1983-92, when Denham finally went to Westminster.
I will not bore you or embarrass him with his leftwing rhetoric in long- forgotten disputes over missiles, poverty and wicked multi-nationals. Like a lot of people who had what Roth's guide to MPs calls 'an early flirtation with extra- parliamentary action', he grew up under Neil Kinnock (no Trot he) in the mid-1980s and began denouncing 'platitudinous repetition' of irrelevant old slogans.
Jacques Delors helped turn him - and many others who now lecture us on the joys of the euro - into a pro-European. Should this alarm moderate HSJ readers? No, not necessarily. I find that people with a real grounding in left politics often make better pragmatic politicians - eg Dobbo. They have roots, ballast and principles, even when, like Denham, they go pinstripe. Nor do they wake up one morning and decide to borrow£373,000 from Geoffrey Robinson.