POLITICS MICHAEL WHITE

I hope you spotted the back of my head on the TV news the other evening. It was on the receiving end of a media dressing-down from Ann Widdecombe for getting bogged down in 'semantics' over the Conservative attitude towards public services instead of concentrating on her new six- point 'health guarantee'.

Given the state of the confusion in the Tory ranks that Peter Lilley's Carlton Club speech produced (ably assisted by Dobsonian propaganda), it was utterly predictable that the local pre-election guarantee would be swamped by an old-fashioned Tory split story.

So it proved. I hardly saw a line about the guarantee the next day, and Miss Widdecombe's combative battle with the press - Horatia on the Bridge - yielded an unkind 'Widdecombe outburst spoils show of unity' headline in the normally friendly Telegraph.

That seemed a bit unfair. She was as articulate as ever and kept asking reporters, 'Don't you care about the NHS? It matters.' Trouble was, as we noted here last week, she and her deputy, Alan Duncan, were also part of the outraged Tory right stirring it up in private against Mr Lilley's clumsy attempt to win voter trust.

'We have no secret plans to privatise the NHS and state schools,' as an exasperated Mr Hague later put it. Alas, voters have been telling top Tories and their pollsters that they don't believe them. Only half of Tory voters trust the party on the NHS.

Hence Horatia on the Bridge with Tory chair Michael Ancram and shadow chancellor Francis Maude, just like the ancient Roman. What were her six points? 1) to match Labour's health spending pledges, those so recently denounced as reckless; 2) to create a 'meaningful and honest system of measuring waiting lists', including average waiting times; 3) to establish a Pathway to Partnership Commission to find 'innovative ways of increasing the flows of additional resources into the public services through commonsense co-operation and partnership with the independent sector...'

Whoops, that's enough points! What does she mean, exactly? Candidly, she says she doesn't yet know, but wants proper debate. Not compulsory charges, she told us, maybe EU-style social insurance, not US-style, though she thinks employer insurance (which the US has) might get more cash in.

'Additionality' is the key word, 'top-up' if you prefer. Lilley was right (she says) to stress core state-funding, wrong (she only implies) to suggest there isn't extra money to be found beyond the occasional (and futile) extra 1p on income tax. Restore tax concessions for BUPA? 'It's one of many options.'

'What about your own famous habit of paying to see your GP, Ann?' one journo interjected.

'I pay to see my GP and take private medicine so the health service does not have to pay. It is to relieve the health service. Those who choose to use private medicine are not guilty of some private error, but are helping to share the costs of the NHS,' Horatia replied unabashed.

Interesting answers, and a few minutes later the warrior dismissed the insular notion that we have the best NHS in the world. Other countries have a better mix to 'do the job (Nye) Bevan actually wanted it to do' before there came the challenges of so many oldsters and the costly new technologies everyone wants.

I almost forgot. Point 5) Miss Widdecombe wants a bureaucracy audit to keep non-medical staff to a minimum. 'We will expect health authorities to justify all non-clinical appointments, such as press officers and clerical staff;' 6) restoring rights for GPs to opt out of Labour's PCG 'collectives'; and Backing Best Hospitals, centres of excellence. Point six-and-a-half I might add is, yes, bringing back matron.

Me, I don't scoff at all these ideas, as Frank Dobson's war machine gleefully does. Nor do I share the Dobsonian line that it is a cunning plan to privatise the NHS by stealth. It's more a cock-up than a plot. But I thought it unwise of Francis Maude to say that private health could no more dominate the NHS than that 'British broadcasting is dominated by BSkyB'. Given the tail-wagging-the-dog grief that Sky causes the BBC, I'd say it's definitely unwise.