Beware ever-increasing interest in its progress by anxious Blairites

By the time you read this, prime minister Tony Blair and health secretary Alan Milburn will have made their set-piece speeches at the Labour Party conference in Brighton.

Mere weeks ago, they were no doubt envisaging that their platform performances would lay down the battle-lines for a general election next spring. Now, their task is one of attempting to kick-start the government's political recovery. In either scenario, the NHS will be crucial to their calculations - witness its central role in ending the fuel crisis.

Whether the election occurs in spring or is deferred to the autumn or later, the NHS's performance this winter will have a decisive effect on the government's fortunes. And ministers will be keenly scanning the horizon for the first appearance of benefits from the NHS plan. None of which is particularly good news for managers. Expect scrutiny of the service to become yet more intense, the atmosphere yet more febrile, before things get better.