What does a minister do when he opens the Sunday newspapers and unexpectedly finds himself tipped for greatness: promotion to the Cabinet as chief secretary to the Treasury, the legendary 'Abominable No-Man', no less? It happened to Alan Milburn two weekends ago.

Being a level-headed sort of fellow, what a minister does in this case is to keep a smirk off his face and keep his head down. No fancy footwork, no playing to the gallery. We caught a glimpse of the tactic when he wound up the Commons debate on the NHS 50th - the official debate, not to be confused with the informal street party staged the previous week.

Will Milburn succeed Alastair Darling as Gordon Brown's Treasury No. 2? I don't know, he doesn't know and, quite possibly, nor does Tony Blair - not yet. I will only say it is a feasible option. Milburn is smart enough and tough enough, and at 40 just a few months younger than Michael Portillo (who he? ) was when he got the same job.

Ah, I hear you ask, but haven't his concessions to the British Medical Association over the dominant role GPs can (if they wish) take in the formation of primary care groups damaged that reputation? When Frank Dobson made passing reference to the negotiation - 'an amicable agreement with the GPs and everyone else concerned' - in the Commons, his Lib Dem Shadow, Simon Hughes, cried out 'You gave in!'

Needless to say, Dobbo was unphased. 'It's giving in now, is it?' he replied, before suggesting that ignoring the reasonable points made by a professional body was the Tory way of doing business.

Shameless or what? The fact is that in the six-hour NHS debate that followed, the issue scarcely resurfaced at all and was not raised by either Mr Hughes or his Lib Dem colleague Evan Harris. Both favour the shift from fundholding to PCGs anyway.

So the BMA deal has simply not caught on as a Westminster issue. When I asked my chums at the DoH what the verdict on the negotiation was, they chuckled. Young Milburn had done very well to get the government off an awkward NHS birthday hook, underlined by HSJ's report last week of the defeat for BMA hardliners. In other words, he kicked the problem into the long grass.

One last point. Some newspapers are presenting Milburn's possible promotion as part of a Blairite effort to curb Gordon Brown's regal tendencies, encouraged by their whispering Mandelsonian friends in Whitehall.

Don't believe it. Milburn is quite close to the Brownites, but too canny to be caught taking sides unnecessarily.

I'm sure he sends Peter Mandelson a birthday card every 21 October as well: much too young to go down with the ship, whichever one it is that sinks.

Meanwhile, it struck me as a touch cynical to stage the NHS debate before the spending review cash was officially announced, so that MPs were sounding off in the financial dark. It did not stop Ann Widdecombe accusing ministers of fiddling waiting list figures in general and at the Alexandra trust in Redditch in particular. A quarter of the 8,000 cases should be removed by 'a combination of reprioritising the list, administrative clean-up and the reduction of referral rate of GPs to the trust', according to a paper sent to the trust board.

Unembarrassable Dobson declared that such techniques were a decade old: 'Nothing different is being done.' Indeed, a similar 'validation exercise' had added 2,000 names to the list in Worcestershire, he said.

Two final points from the debate. One is that Dame Virginia, dowager health secretary, introduced the new Tory buzzword, 'cronyism', into the health arena, not to describe eager young New Labour lobbyists such as Derek Draper, but Dobbo's appointments to NHS trusts. That's another one to watch for as the Tories start to dig themselves out of a very deep hole.

The other was a speech of glowing praise for the NHS, its principles and achievements, from former Tory health secretary Stephen Dorrell. The British NHS is in a league of its own as 'the world's most efficient means of delivering healthcare to a population', he affirmed. The trick, he told ministers, is to achieve a 'gentle rise' in real-terms spending. This time next week we will know whether Dobbo has passed the Dorrell Test.