Ann Widdecombe brought the faithful to their feet with fighting talk at last week's Conservative Party conference. Patrick Butler reports

The Conservatives do not yet have a new health policy. But after Ann Widdecombe's rabble-rousing conference address, they at least appear to have recovered their appetite for opposition.

The shadow health secretary mixed a savage attack on Labour and a call for a 'mature debate' on rationing with a dramatic restatement of fundamental Conservative health values - from the moral virtues of private health insurance to the need to bring back hospital matrons.

She also placed private healthcare boldly at the centre of the Conservative health agenda.

Her speech pushed all the right buttons for delegates: they gave an ecstatic reception to Ms Widdecombe, who recited her speech from memory while stalking menacingly up and down the stage, and sealed her reputation as the new conference darling - the Tories' very own Mo Mowlam.

New policy is not expected for at least another year, but Ms Widdecombe gave hints of where it may be heading.

She outlined a pessimistic vision of an NHS overwhelmed by insatiable demand, renewable only by the beneficial co-option of private healthcare resources, including voluntary private health insurance.

Ms Widdecombe was careful to pay homage to traditional NHS principles.

Healthcare would remain free on demand. The Conservatives would have no truck with charging. And - despite press speculation to the contrary - she declared the Conservatives' 'unshakeable commitment' to year-on-year increases in NHS funding.

But she added: 'Just because I give conference these promises of unshakeable commitment to the principles of the NHS does not mean I'm prepared to run away from the growing fact that the NHS cannot do it all.'

The NHS could not meet every demand placed on it for every new treatment, she said. The answer was either increased rationing - which was already happening 'by stealth' - or 'common-sense co-operation with the private sector'.

She ruled out pushing up public spending on health to cover the funding gap. 'It is no good looking at increases in expenditure from general taxation. We. . . need to look at getting the resources of the private sector available at the service of the NHS.'

Co-operation might take the form of 'new and imaginative ways' of using the private finance initiative. She also called for examination of the benefits of private healthcare schemes run by companies and trade unions for their employees and members.

Individual private healthcare insurance should be encouraged. She made it clear she did not want to compel anyone to go private. But she wanted to sweep away the stigma attached to it.

'I want to remove the guilt from people who choose their own provider; there is nothing morally repugnant about supplying your own health if that is what you choose to do.'

Opting to go private was a 'moral choice', she said. 'Every time you go private you are freeing up the NHS for someone else.'

The Conservatives had 'the guts' to tackle the hard questions, she said, unlike Labour, who by contrast engaged in 'facile debate' of spin, easy promises and slick answers.

The government had failed with waiting list pledges and fiddled figures. Its object, she said, was 'political control, not patient care'.

Ann Milton, a nurse from Reigate, challenged the government to make choices on priorities. To the evident approval of the conference, she said there was 'a difference between a heart bypass and a sex change (and) a difference between a drug for high blood pressure and Viagra'.

Howard Freeman, a vice-chair of the Conservative Medical Society and GP fundholder, attacked primary care groups. Unlike fundholding, PCGs stifled choice and innovation.

They were bureaucratic and would lead to a new kind of rationing by postcode, he said. 'Soon we will see estate agents advertising properties at a premium because they are in an area covered by a high-performing PCG.'

At a fringe meeting hosted by the Social Market Foundation, Ms Widdecombe revealed that she had originally supported PCGs because they had more potential to involve professionals - from nurses to pharmacists - than the Conservatives' own multifunds.

But it was now clear that PCGs were unlikely to offer opportunities for wide professional involvement, she said.

Cash limiting of drugs budgets in PCGs would lead to covert rationing.

GPs were being dragooned against their will into 'collectives'. PCGs, she now believed, were a 'retrograde' step.