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Philip Hammond, the tall, slender and darkly suave shadow junior health minister, has a legitimate claim to 'having a feel' for health issues, having spent a great deal of the last 20 years inside hospitals in the UK and Europe.

Luckily, he frequented medical establishments not as a patient but as a businessman, producing high-tech components used in operating theatres and intensive care units.

It has given him a useful perspective on the evolution of the NHS. 'Anyone involved in the NHS in the late 1970s could see the problems of a centrally directed organisation of that size and that you had to devolve decision making, ' he says. 'When I started working for a healthcare company in 1977, I was told that we could sell at very high prices in the UK, but not in Europe.

'The general feeling was that purchasing in the UK was not up to much.

Now the reverse is true and purchasing is very efficient. I had lunch with former industry colleagues recently and they told me it is very difficult to make money in the UK.'

Mr Hammond, 42, who describes himself as being on the centre-right of the party, was elected to the 'safe' Runnymede and Weybridge seat at the last election with a near 10,000 majority, despite a 13 per cent swing to Labour.

Essex-born, state school-educated, with a politics, philosophy and economics degree from Oxford and a stint in property development behind him, he was one of a generation of young businessmen who were inspired by the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

'When I grew up, the word entrepreneur had negative connotations. Her message was that we were on the side of the good guys, not the bad guys, ' he says.

He has been at the heart of Tory health strategy since his arrival at the Commons, as chair of the party's backbench health committee. 'Every backbencher is interested in health in terms of their own parochial issue. The challenge is to get them interested in the wider debate, ' he says. Labour is vulnerable, he feels, on two counts: failure to meet public expectations on waiting lists and a growing sense of betrayal among the health professions.

'People thought that a Labour government would solve everything. I suspect most now realise that Labour is not a panacea for the NHS. Many of the professions we talk to feel let down.'

Although Mr Hammond welcomes the arrival of 'hard-hitters' like Ann Widdecombe to the Tory health team, he is also conscious of a need to stress the importance in the long-term of developing new health policy.

'We are actively in the business of showing the Tories as the party with the ideas, ' he says.