POLITICS

At the time I didn't give it more than a moment's thought.On Budget eve a Milburn aide had predicted: 'It's going to be a great week for us.'

Routine hyperbole in an era notorious for double counting 'extra cash' statements, I said to myself and moved on.

Well, now we know better. This time it was the real thing.But we still don't know what it will mean and how the government is going to deliver the strategy it bounced on an unsuspecting NHS and on an equally bemused public.Money and methodology remain the crucial questions.

First things first.Was it a 'panic reaction' to the tough NHS winter, as evidenced in Tony Blair's interview with David Frost? Ministers are adamant that it was not.

When I quizzed Gordon Brown about it he said that he and his two special advisers, the 'two Eds' - Balls and Miliband - had sat down the day after the last Budget to address this issue.

'It's a creative time in politics, ' he explained, 'when you have the details of one Budget established and move on to the next stage. It had always been our intention to announce the envelope of spending in March and then for the NHS to have long-term planning.'

Most of us had been led to expect an announcement in July when the new spending review will be unveiled. In the new scenario, health secretary Alan Milburn has been on the inside track all along. He was Brown's Treasury deputy at the time, and only returned to the Department of Health when Dobbo quit in order (so it now looks) not to become London mayor.

A prime minister can juggle two or three big issues in detail. In 2000 health is now it, though it was clear from his post-Budget utterances that he lacks detailed grasp (so does Brown).Hence the slip which the Tory health spokesman, Liam Fox, seized upon: Blair was wrong to assert that, after the fabulous four years (6.1 per cent extra spending a year), 'NHS spending will have risen to 7.6 per cent of GDP'.

In fact it's NHS and private health spending, a significant difference,£13.8bn worth of the expected£82.5bn spend by 2004. It was a slip, though in fairness the EU average, which everyone compares it with, is a public- private mix, too. Blair is not personally hostile to the private sector, but Labour's NHS modernisation strategy specifically excludes it, and Labour MPs hate it.

Listening to the Commons debate, it was striking that they are prepared to unleash private sector disciplines almost everywhere now, even hospital building, but not in the supply and management of healthcare.Not yet, though weekend headlines about the 'last chance saloon' may come back to haunt us if the money does not have the impact it should do.

One other word of caution. Even allowing for the 'stealth chancellor's' weakness for selective statistics, the Budget numbers showed public finances in great shape -£12bn of debt repaid as well as all that wonga for the NHS.But it is worth noting (as Ken Clarke did in a powerful speech) that the financial weather can change quickly: the extra cash remains dependent on the economy holding up.

What is striking about the new strategy is that the money is promised upfront: very un-Blairite.No more excuses about 'lack of resources', unions, managers and royal colleges were quickly told as the great threemonth debate started.The first gush of cash - I almost wrote 'trickle' out of sheer force of habit - has already appeared. So have the first ideas: money even more conditional upon performance, star ratings for trusts, a regulatory role for the Commission for Health Improvement which makes it look more like Chris Woodhead's interventionist regime at Ofsted.At last, Ofsick lives!

William Hague's response to Mr Blair's promise to chair the supervisory committee in person was a sarcastic 'wow'. Fair enough, Blair's Commons statement with its 'five Ps'was a bit platitudinous, a 'timetable for a timetable', the Tory leader quipped. Two thoughts struck me.

First, that the tone is very centralising ('Politicians like to be in control, ' Jonathan Aitken has just admitted on my radio), and that is as risky for the Blairs as it was on healthcare reform for the Clintons.

Second, Messrs Blair and Milburn will sink or swim together.More than one premiership may be at stake.