Published: 24/03/2005, Volume II5, No. 5947 Page 10

It was a funny thing, this year's Budget. So much was riding on it, we were told. Yet it seemed to disappear from public consciousness like Easter snow, leaving Brownite columnists to explain how brilliantly the chancellor had 'ridden to the rescue' and Blairites to wonder if that was all. Was Gordon pulling his punches to undermine Tony, a Tory MP even asked me.

From a health perspective, lowkey may be unsurprising. The Department of Health has already started culling arm's-length bodies and the size of its Whitehall staff; both Budget themes. And, of course, Mr Brown had to do no more than confirm the planned£23bn increase in the health budget by 2007-08.

But I expected more comment on the historic decision to end the practice, long criticised, of deducting£30 worth of 'hotel charges' from old-age pensions when a patient stays in hospital for long periods.

'Grey power' voters are a key target for all parties and Mr Brown made a fuss of them, though he fell short of paying for personal care in homes as the Lib-Lab coalition does in Scotland. In his Scottish Labour conference speech on 6 March, he gave the (incorrect) impression he approves, though he didn't actually say so.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy meanwhile promised to fund such care free in England at a cost of£1.6bn a year, almost certainly an under-estimate as Scotland's was recently proved to be.

Dwarfing all other health announcements made this week - and quite probably this year - was NHS chief executive Sir Nigel Crisp's Patient-Led NHS document, reported in last week's HSJ.

Needless to say it got very little attention in the mainstream media or from the political parties that prefer to accentuate relatively minor differences between them.

I couldn't even find the Crisp package (should that be Crisp packet, I wonder? ) in my Daily Telegraph, though it did report Margaret Dixon's much-postponed operation at Warrington General.

Mercifully for all, it was a success.

Labour campaign strategists, who need to keep themselves cheerful during a bumpy ride, tell me that post-Dixon polling suggests that voters understand Mrs Dixon's cancelled op was a one-off bit of bad luck. It was interesting, but not 'illuminating' of the wider NHS.

Put another way, the campaign for justice after the IRA murder of Robert McCartney is interesting. But it also illuminates the long-hidden evolution of the IRA into gangsterism and the problem that poses for its political wing, Sinn Fein.

No personal case history in the UK election so far has provided such a lightning bolt of illumination, though I would argue that Crisp's packet breathtakingly illuminates the road down which the provision of NHS care is moving. The anti-choice Left does not seem to have noticed yet. It will holler when it does.

The Lib Dems' five-point health statement last week also placed them on the left of health secretary John Reid by offering:

free personal care;

free eye and dental checks and a review of the prescription charge regime;

quicker diagnosis to cut those 'hidden' waiting lists;

giving people control over their personal health 'MoT'; and

scrapping targets that 'hinder tackling methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and other superbugs'.

Mr Kennedy and his health spokesman, Paul Burstow, also condemned rival parties for petty bickering over who was going to spend£35bn more or less than the other.

It did not stop Lib Dem MP Ed Davey from making a fuss over trusts facing end-of-year financial shortfalls. What a wicked world!

Amid ministerial policy shifts ('flip-flops' in Daily Beast language) over cannabis and Alzheimer's drugs the significant dog may have been the one that did not bite. Both the Sunday Times and its Murdochowned stable mate, the News of the Wo r ld , audited the NHS and concluded that, after all that extra cash, things are getting better.

The NoW, which claimed the Home Office had failed its audit last week, 'passed' the DoH on Sunday.

The Sunday Times hired the King's Fund and sounded as grudging as it could manage. But you can't bury good news.

Michael White is political editor of The Guardian.