Shadow health minister Alan Duncan may believe in the mass 'liquidation' of government, but claims the NHS should be spared. So what does he want to do with it, asks Patrick Butler

In his libertarian tract Saturn's Children, Alan Duncan calls for a mass 'liquidation' of government: from education to heritage, he says vast swathes of the state should be simply abolished or privatised.

Significantly, the NHS escapes the carnage. 'I think the NHS works. I think universal provision of this sort is a great post-war success story. There's massive scope also for private provision, and new ways of funding it.

'But the core provision of healthcare, free at the point of delivery, is our NHS,' says the new shadow health minister.

That the NHS, magnificent icon of the collectivist state and bastion of the hated liberal democratic establishment, should survive in Mr Duncan's libertarian utopia, where public spending is only 20 per cent of gross domestic product and schools and universities are privatised, looks like a kind of compliment.

It is a good time to be complimenting the NHS: part of Mr Duncan's mission, he accepts, is to rebuild the bridges between health service staff and the Tories that were destroyed during 18 years of Conservative rule and misrule.

'We don't deserve that lack of trust but we have to accept we started on 1 May with a legacy of dislike.

'We know why we lost. We are changing our attitudes, our party organisation. We are going to listen and not lecture. We should reconnect with those crucial people who I think we alienated, like doctors and nurses,' he says.

Mr Duncan also admits that the opposition health team's first year failed to put health secretary Frank Dobson off his game.

He says that the team is 'desperately under-resourced'. It is going to take on an administrator and volunteers.

Mr Duncan has identified his targets. Waiting lists, inevitably, are top of the agenda, although his interest is not so much the headline figure as how other things will suffer if the government switches existing resources to its waiting list programme.

'This is going to be a big issue,' he predicts.

Hospital closures are a target, as is funding: 'They speak of having increased the amount of NHS spending but it's not a real terms figure.'

He accepts that some hospital closure decisions are right, but suspects that local communities will resent Labour's broken election promises on saving hospitals.

Then there are primary care groups ('ineffective, inefficient') and rationing: 'What do you do with insatiable demand?'

Nor can Mr Duncan resist, as befits a standard-bearer of Thatcherism, a dig at Labour's 'vindictive' abolition of that iconic Thatcherite health policy, tax relief on private healthcare. Nothing unexpected there.

But what is unpredictable is what Mr Duncan will make of the health job.

He shares with his boss, Ann Widdecombe, a combative streak, although he is more street-fighting pugilist to her ruthless assassin. That aside, they are chalk and cheese: dour moralist and flamboyant libertarian. 'Opposite ends of the spectrum,' admits Mr Duncan.

His was a classic Tory ascent. Young Conservative. President of the Oxford Union.

A fortune in oil trading. Made a name for himself in an unwinnable byelection before slotting into ultra-safe Rutland and Melton in 1992.

By then he was already established as a young Turk.

His Westminster home (at which his friend William Hague lodged for a time) was lent to John Major's leadership campaign in 1990, just two hours after Mrs Thatcher resigned.

He associated with fellow high fliers and Thatcherite torch-bearers like David Willetts and the GP Liam Fox. His subsequent progress has not always been straightforward, as his energy, initiative and flair has sometimes spilled over into impetuosity and bad judgment.

His first government job as parliamentary private secretary to the then health minister, Brian Mawhinney, in 1993 ended after a few weeks.

He resigned after it was revealed that he had acquired his neighbour's pounds190,000 council house by advancing pounds140,000 to the neighbour, who then 'bought' the house with a pounds50,000 discount from Westminster council. It was legal, but regarded as a bit sharp.

'I was right to resign for political reasons but really I was caught up in that back-to-basics bollocks - a slogan without a policy,' he told the Sunday Times last year with typically charming insouciance.

His views are idiosyncratic. Right-wing, Eurosceptic, yet in favour of reducing the homosexual age of consent to 16, and, infamously, pro-legalisation of drugs.

He is as likely to bring down Frank Dobson as to shoot himself in the foot.

Colourful and never dull, he could be the joker in the pack.