POLITICS MICHAEL WHITE

One thing we can safely say about the modern media is that it doesn't exactly understate its case. 'Build 'em up, knock 'em down' is the unstated motto of the trade. And if the new Countess of Wessex, this week's heroine of the moment, has one advantage over recent royal brides it is that she once knew a PR girl called Sophie Rhys-Jones who taught her what a fickle friend the tabloids are.

You could make the same point from William Hague's shadow cabinet reshuffle in the wake of his reported 'victory' in the Euro-elections, except that I am not sure whether the Conservative leader is as canny as the countess. A victory based on 36 per cent of a 23 per cent turnout (about 9 per cent of the electorate) is certainly much better than a defeat, but it is not the triumph that has been reported.

It's just that 'Blair bashed' is a novelty in the way that 'Blair wins again' is not. The real significance of the campaign may be morale, insiders say. Mr Hague backed his own judgement by focusing on the euro, and the Tories finally had a win. But any thought of winning the next election is 'patently absurd', he added hastily. Tony Blair agrees: no panic. As to the reshuffle itself, the striking thing is that being a Tory health spokesman is evidently not a backwater job, it's more of a stepping stone. Ann Widdecombe is the Princess Sophie of the story, an obscure junior social security minister just a few years ago, now catapulted into one of the most conspicuous and difficult portfolios, the Home Office.

But look! John Maples, who made less impact in the health portfolio before Miss Widdecombe, and not significantly more at defence, is promoted to another of the top three shadow posts - foreign affairs - though, as a man of moderate instinct in most things, he lacks the Euro-sceptic credentials of most of the new Hague promotions. A classic case of finding a safe- pair-of-hands, he undermines Labour propaganda about new Tory 'extremism'.

Where does all this leave Dr Liam Fox, your new trainee in health? Well, as you know, he is at least a proper doctor, not a PhD, formerly in hospitals in and around Glasgow, latterly a GP on the handsome Scottish borders. But he has always been a politics junkie (vice-chair of the Scottish Young Conservatives at 23), and seems to have moved to Berwickshire to nurse his first constituency contest in 1987. He then moved south and became a locum at Heathrow.

He is also one of Thatcher's political children. Just 17 when she first won power in 1979, still only 37 today, he was one of an ardent new generation rewarded with a safe seat in 1992, the smart south Bristol commuter belt around Nailsea and Portishead.

Coincidentally, he is also a Catholic, like Miss Widdecombe, albeit raised in the faith in East Kilbride, not a convert. Like her, he is a good phrase- maker, confident and articulate, a passionate anti-federalist (in Europe) and pro-Unionist (in Britain). Unlike her, as she would cheerfully admit, Dr Fox is a glamorous figure, a bachelor with a handsome smile, the stuff of heart-throb articles by young women who write for the Daily Telegraph and wear pearls. Some colleagues call him 'more politically astute than Ann'.

He is also a chum of the leader - indeed, he is occasionally tipped as a future leader himself, poor chap. What does he stand for? Well, it's not yet clear. But he is known to be against further NHS reorganisations ('gimmick', he calls them) and wants to concentrate on improvements. He's worried that primary care groups may not have enough money to do all the jobs they have been given, and shares Miss Widdecombe's concerns that the arrival of NICE heralds new pressures on health professionals to ration less 'effective' medicines and treatments.

I almost forgot. Alan Duncan has also moved on (to a trade job), perhaps a victim of the purge which claimed Peter Lilley after 'that speech' on post-Thatcherism which so upset Mr Duncan. Philip Hammond, a less mercurial MP, gets a promotion to number two, and Caroline Spelman, a new MP with a background in agri-business and biotechnology, joins the team, along with ex-minister Earl Howe and senior surgeon Lord McColl of Dulwich. Another Scot, he used to be John Major's health policy adviser. Probably a blood-pressure specialist.