POLITICS

First things first. I have not managed to speak to Frank Dobson since the slow-motion disaster of the London mayoralty finally befell him. But good friends tell me he is not (as reported) bitter, and enjoyed what must have been his first totally relaxed weekend off for a very long time indeed.

'He's in good heart, ' reports one ministerial chum who has spoken to him and rightly, I think, dismisses talk of revenge memoirs. 'The whole thing hurt him badly, there's no doubt about that. But there's a difference between being cross and lashing out. That's not his style.

The thing about Frank is that he's Labour.'

By which my minister means that Dobbo knows you win some, you lose some, but you 'stick by your party', as Disraeli once put it. A very unfashionable sentiment, as Ken Livingstone has shown. Not only did he abandon his party, but he took a huge swathe of London Labour voters with him.

Surprise, surprise. Tony Blair has created devolved government with bags of consumer choice, including fancy PR voting systems, a veritable supermarket.

Voters have said 'Thanks, very much, ' and gone shopping. Consumers are notoriously fickle about brand loyalty. Look at M&S, look at all those London votes for minor parties - Greens, Christians, Marxists, fascists too.

It must also be admitted that Dobbo did not turn out to be very good at the new style of wholesale politics - courting 5 million voters - whereas Mayor Ken was very good at it, shamelessly so. Mr Dobson started on the defensive back foot, a Millbank ball and chain around his ankle, and stayed there. Steve Norris proved nimbler.

The blow, of course, is all the worse because young Alan Milburn is now in the hot seat doing all the things Dobbo might have done if he'd stayed at health (plus a few more, I expect). He's also doing them with all the extra cash Chancellor Brown belatedly stumped up.

You would have to be very loyal indeed not to be wistful about your lost opportunities.

The new Milburn advisory panels are said to be working with energy and enthusiasm.

Not withstanding HSJ 's recent complaints about excess secrecy ('steady on, we're sharing some pretty sensitive material with these people'), ministers say the outside experts - 'all of them people who care about the NHS' are delighted to be working with like-minded people to make it better.

'It's about motivating and challenging people. Not always an easy process. You have to be inclusive, but also to challenge people to lift their sights. It's a mixture of bouncer and conciliator, ' is how one of bouncer Milburn's intimates put it. 'Now we've got the money it's time to call a lot of bluffs and excuses. The debate now is about how we spend the money, how we get good value for money.'

Fitting into that template are both of last week's announcements: NICE's verdict on Taxol, the ovarian cancer drug, and the admission that private care homes may be used to ease NHS bed-blocking (subject to the promise of more active care). But another Dobson/ Livingstone lesson arises from the bouncer/ conciliator model. It is this.

Mr Dobson did not pick public quarrels with Cabinet colleagues; he did his business in private and played the loyal trooper in daylight. 'Tony likes him and rates him. He sometimes got frustrated with the pace of change in the NHS. You've got to be straight and say, 'Tony, that can't be done'. That's what Frank did, he was very straight in private, ' says one ex-Cabinet colleague.

In passing, it may be worth noting that Blair's goodwill may ensure that Mr Dobson does not twiddle his thumbs on the back benches for long, though I don't expect any of that Lord Dobson stuff in a hurry. But contrast that style with Ken, who keeps talking conciliation - 'I want to work together with Tony' - while vigorously and visibly trying to bounce the government.

There is a role for competitive politics within parties as well as between them. It's called Cabinet government. But it is a subtle game. Mayor Ken is touched with populist genius as a politician, but there is not a shred of evidence in his CV that he can effectively play ball with the big boys. I hope I'm wrong. For London and all those other British cities which will shortly be getting directly-elected mayors.