Oh dear, Tony Blair is in trouble with Gordon Brown again for shooting his mouth off. No, I am not referring to his admission at question time that the government's 'five economic tests' on the single currency will be examined within two years of the coming election (if Labour wins).

No, the mouth-shooting which may come back to haunt Number 10 is Mr Blair's unexpected pledge on Breakfast with Frost a year ago that Labour's NHS plan would raise British health spending to the EU average over the next four years.

A King's Fund report now says that Europe's spending is not static either. It is already 9 per cent and rising. By 2006 the gap between the UK's and Europe's spending on health will be 3 per cent (8 per cent in the UK against nearly 11 per cent in the EU) - That is£18bn a year, though I should point out that the King's Fund figures (perversely, in my view) exclude the UK from the EU average figures. That has the effect of pushing the average up.

Tricky stuff, as the Milburn team grapples to make a fresh start for the NHS amid rising expectations which can easily turn sour. Last week, for instance, the first five minutes of health question time in the Commons were devoted to fending off impatient inquiries about NICE's verdict on Herceptin for breast cancer (expected in June) and, of course, on the much-delayed beta interferon for MS, now expected in November.

Conservative MPs queued up for the extra cash for their hospitals and hospices as eagerly as everyone else. On the very same day, two sensible Tories were also fretting about another 'postcode lottery' problem created by well-meaning Labour reforms which can also be traced to Mr Blair's sojourn on Frostie's sofa.What happens, they asked, to hard-pressed health authorities trying to recruit staff when neighbouring authorities have been giving cost-of-living supplements while theirs haven't?

But first, the row over the EU average which niggled Alan Milburn this week. Two points seem worth making. One is that the governments of Europe, notably France and Germany, face downward pressure to cap and even cut the costs of their healthcare and (especially) unfunded pension liabilities as their populations age. If costs are still rising, That is a problem too. Second, I get the distinct impression that Mr Milburn's brief interest in funding the NHS by hypothecation is waning.

Now to those troubled Tories, Robert Syms (Poole) and John Whittingdale (Maldon and Chelmsford East), both of whom were dismayed that neighbouring health patches are among the 15 in the south deemed to face special cost-of-living pressures while Dorset and Essex , which they represent, do not.

Poole's Mr Syms has been checking house prices. The Poole average was£132,396 in mid-2000; the average in Southampton, half an hour away,£89,588 - 40 per cent lower.

'The problem is that nurses who are deciding where to work can look to Southampton and see that they will get cheaper housing and more pay through the cost-of-living supplement, ' said Mr Syms.

Since Poole has 39 nursing vacancies (plus 24 where offers are not yet accepted), the 2.5 per cent salary difference -£400 to£600 payable from 1 April - could make a difference. He did have the grace to admit that Tory efforts to address shortages through local pay differentials in the mid-1990s didn't work either.

He was joined by Mr Whittingdale, once a Thatcher adviser, who also asked for a review of the mechanism to include - to pluck a couple of examples from the air - Dorset and Essex, where Chelmsford's house prices have been rocketing.

Gisela Stuart, the junior minister usually saddled with such debates, had little to offer except statistics, a daunting explanation of how the formula works, plus a pledge that around 100,000 NHS staff (one in 10) will share the£64m pot created to tackle the staff 'market forces factor'. Not all staff shortages are caused by cash shortages - they may be due to bad managers, she hinted.

'It is difficult to get it right, 'Ms Stuart told the MPs before promising close monitoring. I hope there will be, since I am indebted to Poole nurses.

I was born there.