Conservative Party leader William Hague admitted in his keynote address to the conference: 'We have a lot of work to do on health.' Picking up on the themes of Ms Widdecombe's speech, he said: 'The NHS doesn't belong to the Labour Party, it belongs to the people of Britain. We are proud of what our party has done to look after the NHS in 50 years.

'But let's be honest. One of the reasons we lost the general election is that people thought the Conservative Party didn't care about the NHS. We cannot allow this damaging attack to go unanswered.'

The NHS, he said, was 'part of the British way'. It belonged to rich and poor alike. 'But to say that we are true friends of the NHS is not enough. We have got to help this country engage in a mature debate about the NHS. The Labour Party with its simplistic rhetoric and dishonest promises and cruelly raised expectations is already letting people down.'

There were real challenges as a result of advancing medical technology. The Conservatives would 'be straight' with people, and stand for 'generous public funding', he said. 'But we will also stand for a future in which the people at the frontline of healthcare have the freedom to take their own decisions. A future when local GPs and local hospitals are embedded in strong local communities. A future where the Berlin Wall between the public and private sectors is torn down.'