Sitting in a BBC TV studio just before prime minister's question time the other Wednesday, I was asked what I thought William Hague would torment Tony Blair about this week. Fresh back from the EU summit in Portugal, I replied 'Europe'.

Why not? It is a subject which always puts British ministers on the back foot. But Mr Hague surprised me. Within minutes he was trading blows with the PM over postcode rationing on the NHS and the merits of beta interferon for all 85,000 MS sufferers at£10,000 each year.

He even baffled viewers with his new 'exceptional medicines fund'. The brainchild of opposition health spokesman Dr Liam Fox, it would ring-fence national funds to ensure that, once a drug had been deemed efficacious by the medics, we would each get our fair share of it.

The Tory leader's news sense had been better than mine. He had got wind of the provisional conclusions of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, which suggest that the money would be better spent on physio and rehab. It raises the prospect of what the next day's Telegraph called 'equality of misery', because no new patient would get it.

I consulted a research chum who knows a lot more about these things than even Dr Fox.He backed NICE.

'There's very little evidence that beta interferon does anything, ' he told me. 'A lot of treatments have given very equivocal results.' But the drug companies peddle it in hospitals where patients are understandably desperate for any marginal improvement, he conceded.

That's not what the MS Research Trust told the Telegraph. It reported that it produces fewer relapses and is used by 12-16 per cent of sufferers in Europe, but only 2 per cent in Britain. The significance of the Blair-Hague spat is essentially political.

Having talked tough on crime and asylum seekers to woo his core voters, Mr Hague is letting it be known that he will be addressing softer, social issues - health and education - in the weeks ahead.

Hence Dr Fox's extended appearance on BBC's On The Record at the weekend, a halfhour session with John Humphrys, the complexity of which would have tempted even the most dedicated NHS anorak to go out for a long walk.

What it boiled down to is that Dr Fox wants to find ways to encourage more people to take out more - and cheaper - private insurance policies, either as individuals or through their employer. He intends to use the tax system (in the long term) to encourage them, a move which would cost the NHS£1bn, so Mr Blair had told MPs.

Currently, of course, Gordon Brown's stealth taxes have put£500m on company health schemes as a benefit in kind (like company car tax), the opposite of making it tax deductible for OAPs, as Mrs T did. In theory, Fox says, the change would be self-financing by easing burdens on the NHS.

Dr Fox has said this before. He also repeated his idea that the NHS should be told to 'guarantee' treatments for life-threatening diseases in a defined time or pay to have them privately. The move is designed to reassure people that their cancer will be treated, at the same time as it encourages them to take out insurance for minor ailments, such as varicose veins.

The one new claim I heard was that Dr Fox said that insurance firms have told him that they could cut premiums by up to 30 per cent if the cancer-type cover could be removed and taken over by the NHS. That would make what he still regards as costly, inflexible schemes more attractive.

So goes the theory. Re-reading the transcript, I think Dr Fox and Mr Hague are still muddled and unconvincing. So do the voters, to judge from the poor Tory showing in the Tottenham by-election. Labour duly got excited and health minister John Denham rattled out a series of seven questions on the costs involved - and how they would be squared with other Tory promises.

Fair enough, and Labour rightly teases Hague over his mimicking of US Republicans. But the Foxites are surely right to keep asking what we can learn from EU health models, not the US one. In truth Blair and health secretary Alan Milburn are also edging towards greater public-private partnership. Hence the hullabaloo. We may have cracked the genome code, but we are still apes at heart.