Love her or loathe her, Virginia Bottomley was a woman with crusading zeal. And, as Patrick Butler discovered, she still is

'It's extraordinary!' says the woman for whom health secretary Frank Dobson reserves some of his choicest abuse. 'It never ceases to amaze me that Dobbo thinks there is merit in being vindictive, and vulgar as well.'

Virginia Bottomley, Mr Dobson's predecessor-but-one, seems bemused rather than offended.

She has had more than her fair share of abuse in the past, not least for drawing up the plans for an unpopular, hospital-closing review of London healthcare, most of which Mr Dobson is now busy implementing.

Last year, Mr Dobson described her as 'the least sincere politician in Britain, and God knows, there is a lot of competition'.

During the London review debate, he referred her, apropos of Bart's Hospital, to the Book of Proverbs: 'As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.'

Mr Dobson's behaviour is, she suggests, a matter of class: 'He's simply that style of Labour politician for whom abuse is an art form. It's not the world I come from.

'I go out of my way to be as constructive and decent as I can. Quite a number of Labour MPs have apologised to me on his behalf, and said he was appalling.'

Quite why Mrs Bottomley attracts abuse is not clear. She is undoubtedly decent and constructive, and hard-working, if perhaps a little aloof and patrician.

Some of her initiatives - such as The Health of the Nation - were ground- breaking. Her record, on waiting lists for example, was not at all bad.

Arguably two things made her a hate figure: her implacable will to close Bart's (and other 'mini-Bart's' around the country); and the repetitive use of statistics that characterised her appearances on Radio 4's Today programme.

As far as Bart's is concerned, she has no regrets. Labour's decision to put a heart and cancer centre on the Bart's site she dismisses as 'a face-saving gimmick'.

She says her decision to close Bart's was based on a 'laborious' review of data and expert advice, together with a determination not to duck hard choices.

'I felt if I disregarded the expert official advice and then acted on the basis of political romanticism, then I couldn't expect the chairmen and chief executives of other health authorities or trusts to make tough decisions at a time when everybody was trying to deliver change, much of it unpopular,' she says.

She says she never considered a face-saving move with Bart's.

'We had an enormously long consultation process... I took the view that in the end you became exhausted if you had more options... the job of the secretary of state was to make sure decisions were made.'

For this she was attacked by all and sundry, including London's pro-Tory Evening Standard which launched a remarkably sustained and vicious campaign against her.

Although she admits her children (one of whom was a junior doctor) found it 'deeply distressing', she claims it didn't leave her scarred.

Indeed, you suspect that in a curious martyr-like way the hostility and pain gave her strength and a sense of duty fulfilled. She constantly uses words and phrases like 'mission' and 'crusade'.

Somebody had to 'be brave enough to bite the bullet' and be 'prepared to wear a tin hat', she says.

She recalls that at the height of the Bart's conflict her father would phone her on a Sunday night and remind her that 'no one gets a salary and a round of applause' - a remark from which she took comfort.

She adds: 'I have always felt that I have to look myself in the eye and say 'I took the courageous decision', not 'I passed the buck, aren't I lucky I got through that scot-free'.'

'I'm my own harshest critic. I want to look back and say I took the steps that were necessary. I was touched by the recognition in Geoffrey Rivett's book - what was it, that I took the decisions that my predecessors deferred and my successors would be grateful for.'

Mrs Bottomley affects surprise that her obsessive use of statistics has become such a defining characteristic. She blames her social science 'brainwashing' (partly at the London School of Economics, Mr Dobson's old university) and its emphasis on backing up comment with statistical evidence.

The Times recently referred to her disparagingly as someone who used statistics 'as a drunk uses a lamppost' compared with Mr Dobson, who deserved plaudits for his candid admission that rising waiting lists were an embarrassment for which he took responsibility.

Mrs Bottomley points out that under her, the number of people waiting more than a year for treatment went progressively down (at this point, she takes a list of figures from her folder, helpfully circling the relevant numbers).

'Maybe it's more endearing if you say the NHS is in a sorry state, isn't it,' she muses.

She says she's enjoying life as a backbencher, claiming she didn't want to be a front-bencher past the age of 50, a milestone she reaches next week.

She has been 'preparing an exit strategy for some time', and has moved to a grand new office looking across the Thames to St Thomas' Hospital.

Since the election she has been busy with her Surrey South West constituency, has asked a pile of parliamentary questions, and is a regular at health debates. She sits on the foreign affairs select committee. She feels 'liberated', and has no desire to be a front-bench opposition spokeswoman.

There's also a quiet confidence in the legacy of her health policies. Labour's public health green paper is, she says, linked by 'evolution' to her Health of the Nation.

Of The New NHS white paper she says simply: 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.'

She talks fondly of her NHS 'heroes', mainly managers: Sir Duncan Nichol, Alan Langlands, Sir Donald Wilson, Sir Michael Peckham, Lord Hunt ('the only wise step Labour has taken is to give Philip a peerage'), Sheila Masters.

They are people who 'were prepared to stand up and say what needed to be said'.

She has less happy memories of the medical establishment. 'They are happy to special plead in their own cause, but they are extremely reluctant to stand up publicly and support a controversial course of action'.

She also recalls certain unnamed 'distressingly cynical' former NHS colleagues who 'regard it all as a bit of a joke'.

Unfortunately, she says she has no intention of publishing memoirs to reveal which senior officials she has in mind. After all, there are crusades to launch, missions to fulfil and battles to fight.

'I believe in going forward,' she says. 'It's onward and upward really, always the next step.'