'All's fair in love and politics and Labour used to say 'Tory cuts' when it really meant smaller increases'
Delegates entering this year's Conservative conference in Bournemouth were greeted by a series of life-size cut-out Gordon Browns, each wielding a huge pair of scissors, under the slogan 'Stop Brown's NHS cuts'. Not Blair's or Hewitt's. Brown's.
Beneath each cut-out was an invitation to pick up an 'NHS Campaign Pack', the purpose of which is to make the chancellor's last few months in Number 11 as uncomfortable as David Cameron and his health spokesman Andrew Lansley can manage.
The pack itself is a well-organised bit of agit-prop (agitation and propaganda for those who have forgotten their youthful follies), worthy of Mr Brown in his opposition days. It contains draft council motions, petitions and press releases with which NHS managers will soon become familiar.
Also included is a complete list of NHS trusts, their 2005-06 surpluses and deficits. A majority, of course, are in surplus and are building services, though others have 'been plunged into debt and forced to back swingeing cutbacks'.
Note that passive tense: forced. But by what? By that wicked Brown's financial mismanagement, by his interference and the burden of an extra 100,000 'NHS bureaucrats', says the Tory pack, which blames everything from targets and reorganisation to the cost of Agenda for Change and the European working-time directive.
All's fair in love and politics and Labour used to say 'Tory cuts' when it really meant smaller increases. You cannot expect Tory councillors to acquiesce in closures of local beds and hospitals or reduced spending per head in wealthy and over-provided areas (there's a handy table about that too), even if the local hospital is bloody awful, as one admitted to me over a drink.
What does it all mean? One, the Tories are back with the first leader in 15 years who sounds like a winner, though he admitted in Bournemouth that the next election will be 'wide open'.
Two, that a revitalised opposition will be going after all that 'NHS waste' as we knew they would. Cameron's scene-setting speech on Sunday included the charge that Labour reversed pre-1997 reforms 'and now they're trying to bring them back'; and that among the 'graveyard of initiatives' that only benefited lawyers and management consultants are axed strategic health authorities and the 'NHS computer shambles'.
Mr Cameron had the grace to admit past error, obsessions like Europe and patient passport opt-outs in the Tories' own wasted years. His new remedy, apart from the famous optimism and sunshine, is to get the politicians out of the NHS and leave decisions to the caring professions, not 'NHS managers or politicians with little or no experience of frontline patient care'.
As tieless Dave himself would say 'Yeah, right'. In truth, the Tories are sensibly still working up detailed policies, no rush. In BoMo this week, father-of-five Andrew Lansley and David Willetts (education) concentrated on children and the need to support families rather than interfere with them at birth or sooner.
'The state is a poor parent,' Mr Lansley told me in feisty mood. Yes, but... that begs a lot of questions. It serves to remind us that a post-Blair government will not take this lying down. Labour has spent billions on the NHS, which is much better off for it: those 'cuts' are small in context.
And Oliver Letwin's loose talk to the Sunday Times about unleashing an unrestrained private sector on the NHS will go straight into Labour's cuttings file (see Media watch, below). Yes, I know the party moved quickly to strangle the story - and Ms Hewitt has problems of her own on that score - but fairness doesn't come into it.
'Our position is the same as Patricia Hewitt's in saying there should be no artificial limits on the private sector,' Mr Lansley told me on the BoMo shore. His emergency Letwin statement quoted Mr Cameron as wanting 'the private sector to come and help improve the NHS', instead of the old policy of 'helping a few to leave the NHS and go private'.
Good stuff. Just 40 next week, Mr Cameron constantly demonstrates maturity and emotional intelligence that eludes fellow Etonian and super-brain Mr Letwin. I would trust Dave to post a letter, not Olly.
Michael White is assistant editor (politics) of The Guardian.