opinion: POLITICS

I seem to remember that when Sir George Young was junior health minister he used to spend the hours kicking around the Commons waiting for those late-night adjournment debates by going through his constituency mail. 'Ring me as soon as you read this,' a pompous Acton constituent (I was one of them) once complained. 'Why are you ringing me at 4am?,' the fellow asked when the Bicycling Baronet telephoned. 'Because you told me to.'

John Denham didn't have to wait until the small hours for his last adjournment debate - only until the comparatively civilised hour of 9 o'clock. But he can't have enjoyed sorting out the terrier-like team of Nigel Evans and fellow Lancashire Tory Michael Jack in the affair of the sacked non- execs at the Guild trust in Preston, which HSJ again reported last week.

Until I later rang Mr Jack, MP for Fylde, I had thought Mr Denham had done pretty well. Mr Evans, in whose Ribble Valley constituency the strife- torn trust also operates, set out the background to the two inquiries which led to the eventual dismissal (24 hours before last week's debate) of the chief executive, Les Howell.

Mr Howell had lost the confidence of the clinical community and some purchasers, there was secrecy and a lack of openness. He had been 'detached, uninvolved and autocratic'. But the two MPs' real focus was the three whistle- blowing non-execs who had refused to resign quietly when Frank Dobson decided the best thing to do was have a proper clear-out of what Mr Denham called the now 'dysfunctional' non-execs - five of them - and start again.

Mr Dobson was 'determined not to apportion individual blame for their failure to achieve a unified trust', Mr Denham stressed to the near- empty House more than once. I wondered about that phrase because Dobbo can be an ace apportioner of blame when needs must.

But Mr Denham explained that it was because his Rt Hon Friend 'did not wish to deprive the five of the opportunity to serve the NHS again' that he asked them to resign rather than be sacked, which would 'debar them from holding office again'.

Two did, but the whistleblowers - the trio which had taken their initial fears to the regional offices - refused, on what Mr Jack (himself an ex- health spokesman) called 'points of principle and honour' - ie they'd done nothing wrong.

Quite the reverse: they'd been vindicated, as Mr Denham conceded. They had been 'right to approach the regional office with their concerns', but wrong to assume they could stay on under a new chair. Neither 'realistic nor in the best interests of the trust', in what was a 'rare, if not unique' situation.

As you know, the two Tories believe that Dobbo intervened in the mess and cleaned everyone out at the behest of Preston's Labour MP, Audrey Wise, who took Mr Howell's side in the dispute and called the key inquiry report 'childish', based on gossip and intrigue. She may have had a good reason for not attending the Evans debate (she had been in the House earlier), but I don't know. She did not return my last call.

But I did speak to the trio's leader, Dr Roger Kendle, who was very indignant and sent me a sheaf of correspondence. They were not political appointees, incidentally. I also spoke to Mr Jack, who said, 'there are still too many unanswered questions' about the proper role of whistleblowers and the improper interference of ministers. He wants a public inquiry (which he will not get).

'I can understand why Dobbo wanted a fresh start, but three people who did the job they were appointed to do were sacked. If they'd resigned it would have been an admission they'd got it slightly wrong,' says Mr Jack. It would have been better to 'ask the trio if they would be kind enough to serve elsewhere'.

A storm in a Lancashire teacup, perhaps. But the Tories are encouraged by Labour's Euro-election shambles and are beginning to regain a little focus. HSJ readers also heard last week of lobbyist-turned-MP Graham Brady's concerns about party-biased appointment processes at Salford and Trafford HA. Mr Brady bent my ear for 15 minutes, too. Lean, smart and hungry, I'd say. He's also 32. Watch out.