Published: 17/03/2005, Volume II5, No. 5947 Page 17

It never rains, but it pours in politics. As I type this I am listening to Graham Allen, an estimable Labour backbencher, complaining on Radio 4's Today programme that the chief constable of his beloved Nottingham should not have taken his whinge about excessive police paperwork to the Sunday Telegraph so close to an election.

It is bad for police morale on the beat where they are doing very well.

If only top cop Steve Green's management was as sharp as his public relations skills etc etc. All true, I am sure. But come off it, Graham - It is what happens!

Substitute 'doctor' or 'nurse' for 'copper' and we could be talking about the NHS. Almost every day we are doing just that: MRSA, Alzheimer's, Margaret Dixon's shoulder, even bird flu. Health ministers are at bay. It is called accountability and It is very rough justice.

There was an unreported moment during the Blair-Reid press conference last week (the one when John Reid accused Tory leader Michael Howard of using personal cases as 'human shields') when the prime minister turned directly on us, his tormenters.

'You have got to decide - the media as well as politicians - what you want to do. If you want to run bad NHS stories every day between now and the election, you can, ' he said.

Not for the first or last time Mr Blair went on to say that, with 1 million people being treated by the NHS every 36 hours, some are bound to go wrong. But 'the one fundamental question the public will ask is: is the NHS significantly better than it was eight years ago?' Obviously he believes, passionately, that the answer is yes.

I thought of that on Sunday when I watched Mr Blair battling Jonathan Dimbleby's hand-picked panel of women who voted Labour in '97 and have gone off him: they are a key Labour group, and they are cross - not just about Iraq.

A very articulate gynaecologist calmly challenged him on clinical priorities being overridden by unrealistic targets. 'By reducing waiting times in accident and emergency more patients are seen.

But it is going to lead to serious mistakes because the doctors work under pressure; their manager's standing there looking at the clock ticking. Working under pressure is never nice, ' she observed.

Mr Blair stood by his targets as the best way to make progress - perhaps they were not flexible enough, he conceded - and insisted that A&E departments are not 'the ghastly place' they were. A few minutes later a cheerful Caroline Hudson-Jones, aged 57, was telling him she has had wonderful treatment at Southend Hospital, but had brought her own cleaning materials.

'It is not their fault - the contract cleaners; I've worked for contract cleaners. But they do down the middle and back, no corners, no under the bed; nothing.' When she left the nurse said, 'I'll really miss the smell of your disinfectant', and she replied 'your whole hospital should smell like that'.

It is one of the paradoxes of our time that a prime minister, with a great deal on his plate, and one who is trying to devolve authority in the NHS away from the centre, should have to worry about hospital floors.

'Fair point, ' he replied, adding:

'We are bringing matrons back.' Firms which fail should lose contracts.

It is enough to make you weep.

But remember in the weeks ahead that politicians are all volunteers.

Stamina, mental and physical, is their primary quality. In which case, was John Reid wise to use up some of a health secretary's political capital ticking off Jeremy Paxman for being patronising?

I sympathise with Mr Reid. Paxo is horribly condescending and working class Scots who left school at 16 (as pre-PhD Reid initially did) are bound to be more sensitive to it than many of us. It was clearly an old grudge match.

But wise? No. It just gives the Daily Beast another stick with which to beat him. Few target voters watch Newsnight.

It also means less room for sensible points: the Tory plan to improve sexual health awareness among the young, for instance, or Mr Reid's rebuttal of the claim that waiting lists have actually grown.

It is the so-called 'bus queue' argument. Does an 'average' include those who were waiting for ages and have now got a bus? Or just those still in line? Voter, you decide.

Michael White is political editor of The Guardian.