Published: 14/04/2005, Volume II5, No. 5951 Page 10

I was chatting over lunch the other day with an Australian political scientist who remarked admiringly:

'That slogan your Conservatives are using is the best dog whistle slogan I've ever seen.' The slogan in question is 'Are you thinking what We are thinking?' and it is appearing on posters alongside suggestions that 'It is not racist' to want proper immigration controls, and not wrong to be angry if 'some bloke on early release' attacks your daughter.

It is not clear who exactly doesn't mind their daughter being duffed up a bit. That is where the dog whistle bit comes in. As my lunch date explained: 'Let's say I am a racist, you're a racist, but he's not. When I make this kind of remark he doesn't hear it, but you do.' I am not going to suggest that Labour does not use subliminal tactics. Health secretary John Reid's reference to 'the rich' on Sunday TV when discussing choice in healthcare is designed in part to trigger class reflexes.

On the other hand his charge has the merit of being basically true:

under the Conservatives, people with health insurance or money would get NHS cash to buy private ops. Crime, race, asylum and similar issues are trickier, but issues on which Michael Howard's Ozzie advisers have form Down Under.

Are voters thinking what he is thinking on the NHS at this stage in the 2005 campaign? Before this week's manifesto launches (they contained few surprises on health, but some aces may still be up the parties' sleeves), Mr Howard and his health spokesman, Andrew Lansley, refurbished some of their ideas for cleaner wards.

The£52m 10-point plan has matron back in charge (again), 24/7 access to ward cleaners, dress codes and financial penalties. You would almost call them targets if targets were not bad and run by horrid bureaucrats.

Labour claims to be relaxed because the Tory points are essentially producer points, backed by anti-target doctors or the nursing press, whereas its own emphasis - more choice, shorter waiting lists - are consumer points. As so often the Lib Dems are somewhere in between.

Two contentious weekend media reports may reinforce that dividing line. The Sunday Telegraph claimed to show how accident and emergency departments are being run ragged by Whitehall's four-hour wait targets (see Media Watch, below). The Observer reported that a major London teaching hospital, Charing Cross, may be forced to close because of reorganisation driven by money problems.

Good Labour sources tell me both stories were probably planted by the Tories or manipulated by them.

True? I do not know and Labour does that sort of thing, too. 'Closure is Tory spin, there are no plans to close it, ' a local MP assures me, referring to the Charing Cross story.

What do voters think? The Sunday Telegraph's ICM poll reports that health remains the number one issue (19 per cent) ahead of tax and law 'n' order (15 per cent).

Immigration comes in at 8 per cent More voters (55 per cent) do not think Labour has kept its NHS promises than do (39 per cent).

There is still much to play for on this vital issue.

Which leads us to my column (page 11, 3 March) about the freemarket think tank Reform and its sweeping ambition to localise the ownership of hospitals and replace taxpayers' funds with compulsory insurance. And who is the director of Reform? Why Nick Herbert, the chap who got the Arundel nomination after Howard Flight was hurled from the battlements of the town's imposing castle for suggesting the Tories have a secret cuts agenda!

Labour has been busy pumping out Herbert articles in which he urges a smaller state and copayments (charges) for healthcare.

In short, he is precisely the kind of chap whose menacing 'flank' nice Mr Lansley told HSJ readers he is 'guarding against' (Interview, pages 18-19, 7 April).

At last week's press briefing we decided Mr Lansley was under orders to filibuster. Reporters asked how the James review could save£616m by abolishing strategic health authorities when they only cost a fraction of that to run. We rapidly got into SHA training budgets and how best to manage them. By the time this reaches you Mr Reid will probably have recalled what a mess the enemy made of medical training pre-1997. The going is tough. .

Michael White is political editor of The Guardian.