westminster diary

In his first appearance at the despatch box as health secretary, Alan Milburn admitted that the government had 'changed tack' over its waiting-list strategy.

But Mr Milburn insisted that, despite its new commitment to focusing resources on early treatment of heart and cancer patients, the government was still committed to meeting its manifesto promise of cutting waiting lists.

He said: 'We intend to keep our promise that by the end of this parliament the number of people on waiting lists will be 100,000 lower than we inherited.

'We are taking this initiative because it is the right thing to do.

'As waiting lists come down, so will waiting times. That is happening already, and in the core priority areas of cancer and heart disease we are now setting in train action that will ensure patients are seen in a timely fashion.'

Mr Milburn was taunted by shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox over his refusal to abandon the waiting-list initiative, which was 'reducing the NHS to a shambles, with extraordinarily distorted clinical priorities'.

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Nick Harvey questioned whether Labour could combine its waiting-list initiative and its waiting-time pledges for heart and cancer patients without new money.

But there was unexpected, if qualified, support for Mr Milburn from Ronnie Campbell, 'Old' Labour MP for Blythe Valley, who welcomed his commitment to 'save the lives of cancer and heart patients' but added: 'It should have been made from the beginning.'

He said: 'I am beginning to warm to New Labour. But before my colleagues get too excited, I am only saying warm.'