Ms Widdecombe emphasised that the Conservatives were still some way off a new health policy. But she placed some important markers to guide her party's thinking.

The Conservatives believe in an NHS run on traditional principles - healthcare available to all regardless of means and free at the point of delivery. NHS funding should rise year on year, and charges - which can 'deter people in genuine need of care' - are ruled out.

Rationing is increasing (mainly covertly) because the NHS resources cannot - and will never be able to - match demand. The Conservatives believe a 'mature debate' is needed to establish exactly which services and treatments should be available on the NHS.

The Conservatives rule out closing the funding gap by increasing public spending; rather, they look to the private sector - in the form of non-compulsory health insurance and 'imaginative' private finance initiatives - to supplement the NHS at the 'non-core' margins.