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Walking while chewing gum was, allegedly, one step too far for former US president Gerald Ford.

Dr Evan Harris is health spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. Their annual party conference in Harrogate is not quite the White House. Nonetheless, Dr Harris' proclivity to whip out an electric razor and indulge in a brisk shave while striding through the conference 'crowds' suggest this is a man to keep an eye on.

A media-savvy character whose smooth patter switches effortlessly from local radio phone-in to television broadcast, Dr Harris only comes unstuck when interrupted mid-soundbite.

'Hang on, I'm on a roll here,' he snaps, as he accuses the government of 'lurching from crisis to crisis' because of failures to plan funding evenly over the course of its term in office.

He continues: 'I've got news for Gordon Brown. I know of no clinical condition that gets worse just before an election. Except perhaps severe nausea.' Obviously, it's the way he tells them.

The subject of funding - or rather the 'chronic underfunding which has plagued the NHS' - is high on the agenda for the Liberal Democrats. Dr Harris describes funding and rationing as 'the biggest issues in health at the moment'.

He backs an earlier threat by Treasury spokesman Malcolm Bruce to vote against the next Budget if it 'puts income tax cuts ahead of cutting NHS waiting times and class sizes'.

Dr Harris also calls on the government to be 'explicit' about 'political interference in clinical decision-making' to ration treatments.

'Then voters could decide if they want these tax bribes or not. If that is what people want, then fair enough. It is infant school politics to deny there is rationing in the NHS. We need to have an open debate about what the priorities are.'

If the Liberal Democrats were in power a 'significantly higher' proportion of gross domestic product would be devoted to the NHS, promises Dr Harris.

How much higher? 'Well, I'm not the Treasury spokesperson - but obviously there would be policy implications for other budgets and we have said quite clearly we would not have tax cuts.

'One thing I have not said is that we can solve the NHS's problems by making savings and efficiencies. I think the last thing the NHS needs is more change,' he says, dismissing the government's 'modernisation guff'. Primary care groups are little more than an attempt to 'rebadge fundholding', while clinical governance is like 'the emperor's new clothes' unless the underlying issue of underfunding is addressed.

Waiting times - or rather the government's waiting list initiative and the introduction of an 18-month time limit - bear the brunt of much of his anger. The Liberal Democrats would abolish targets that encourage GPs to 'bring out their dead' and refer patients in little need of treatment, says Dr Harris.

'We wouldn't have waiting lists at all. Surgery is just one element of medicine - and elective surgery is just one element of surgery. When you have these targets other parts of the service get raided.'

He proposes a system of clinical scoring - a points system similar to that used by local council housing departments - under which factors such as clinical need and effect on lifestyle would determine the urgency of treatment.

Despite Dr Harris' support for local campaigns to save Oxfordshire's community hospitals, he insists: 'We are not like the Tories who want to see every little accident and emergency department kept for all perpetuity.

'We are not opposed to rationalisation of hospital services if it improves the quality of care... but we don't think the royal colleges should do secret reports that condemn hospital closures. And when closures are financially motivated that should be made clear.'

The conference health debate centred on a motion - carried unanimously - to reduce junior doctors' working hours by expanding student numbers and NHS-wide planning for consultant numbers.

Moving the motion, Dr Harris recalled the long hours he worked as a junior doctor which had led to the collapse of his marriage and the suicides of two colleagues.