'Alan Johnson's been put there to talk to staff and take people with him, explains one ally'

Well, well. Alan Johnson as secretary of state and a virtually new ministerial health team in Gordon Brown's big shake up, including two Brownites and a 'big tent' outsider in Professor Sir Ara Darzi.

Apparently he was the new prime minister's own idea. I have not quite made up my mind about Mr Johnson during his mercurial rise since leaving the leadership of the Communications Workers Union in 1997 to become MP for Hull West. It is his fourth cabinet job since 2004 (too many); it is hard to tell how well he manages.

But, if ex-health secretary Patricia Hewitt is right to insist the NHS is in much better shape for promised devolution, he is good news for staff and patients. As Italians say he is 'sympatico' - though do not assume his old union mates all love him. There is some resentment.

'He's been put there to talk to staff and take people with him,' explained one Johnson ally as opinion polls detected the expected 'Brown bounce' which even put Labour back in the lead on health.

So no need for David Cameron to jump in the Thames just yet. But the 57-year-old ex-postie and father of three, now the cabinet's only non-graduate, is a good listener, as nice in private as this 1960s Cockney mod sounds on television. No disrespect to Ms Hewitt, but there will be more laughter now.

I caught her on the mobile to check the exit story. Sacked or what? It seems she decided to leave the cabinet two months ago and told Mr Brown over Whitsun. 'You have done a very good job,' he told her and wanted to offer another job.

Why go now? The Hewitt agenda has always been strong on work-life balance. In nine years as a minister she has not always been there for husband and two children. More urgent, her parents are both over 90 and mostly live in Australia. Her father is here for a hip operation, but her mother can no longer travel. She wants to see more of them, but also to concentrate on her Leicester West constituency (majority 9,070) which faces awkward boundary changes. Unlike ex-prime minister Tony Blair she wants to stick around.

That seems to me human enough to be ignored by the tabloids. The Hewitt gloss (we don't say spin now) is that most of her team moved 'because they're all so brilliant'.

The Johnson camp would have liked more continuity than just health minister Ivan Lewis. But note one particular move. Former health minister handy Andy Burnham was surprised to get a cabinet vacancy (perhaps one earmarked for Ms Hewitt?), as new chancellor Alistair Darling's Treasury chief secretary - in charge of public spending.

That includes the delayed comprehensive spending review, which will dictate NHS funds after 2008. So the Department of Health's negotiators will face a man who knows their problems, but knows their negotiating positions too.

That may prove a mixed blessing, but weekend reports that NHS capital spending has been 'slashed' by the Treasury were misleading. They are merely rolled over to reflect past underspends.

What else? Dawn Primarolo was a Campaign Group leftist who joined the former Treasury squad under Brown on day one. As paymaster general she loyally took flak for Gordon when tax credits and such went wrong. A Unison member whose political roots are in Bristol, heir to Tony Benn, she came up the hard way. I like her.

Ben Bradshaw is an ex-BBC journalist, MP for Exeter (where he fought off a fierce Tory gay-basher) since 1997. He returns to the department where he was ex-minister John Denham's unpaid parliamentary private secretary in 2000-01. He is a survivor.

As for Ann Keen, long Mr Brown's loyal PPS, you may remember her as a leading nurse activist before winning Brentford and Isleworth in 1997. Husband Alan is a neighbouring MP. A tough cookie, I think.

New parliamentary under-secretary of state Professor Sir Ara Darzi will be on a steep learning curve. Ms Hewitt, who claims to have introduced him to the Brown circle, says he's 'completely brilliant'. As surgical czar, hospital review specialist and much else, he is already an experienced politician.

He and Gordon have had long chats. He will also become the first minister to operate on voters. Risky? No, they say he's too good.

Michael White is assistant editor (politics) of The Guardian.