In the wake of the Cabinet's special session at Chequers I was struck by the fact that Alan Milburn was judged a safe enough pair of lungs to report to the broadcasters.

His remarks were replete with references to voter 'choice' and for pre-election 'dialogue' with them.

The electorate, Mr Milburn ventured, is 'fed up with sloganising', though that did not prevent him going on to confess that Labour may have to be tougher on the Tory version of choices: privatisation and cuts - or 'PC', the Thatcherite version of politically correct, as the veteran left-wing columnist Paul Foot puts it Cut to same BBC studio (48 hours later) and Mr Milburn is on the back foot, fighting off the BMA chair, Dr Ian Bogle, for announcing to The Times that the NHS plan - which Dr Bogle signed, of course - will not be able to guarantee a GP appointment within 48 hours by 2004 because there still won't be enoug doctors.

No wonder Milburn was cross, and his Tory counterpart, Dr Liam Fox, delighted. Personally, I suspect that Dr Bogle will be proved right, as he will about the over-fast expansion of NHS Direct.

But Dr B was also playing politics in the runup to the doctors' annual pay round - coming early this year, we are told, because of the election. That's also playing politics.

Minister Milburn insists that the government's education plans had also been ambitious, but that, hey, those extra teachers had been found.

Not so easy in the NHS, I hear you murmur.

Agreed. 'If the BMA has any ideas about going further and faster. . . I stand ready to talk, ' the minister told Radio 4's Today through what sounded like gritted teeth.

There will be more of this. Mid-week Dr Fox made a little-publicised speech in which he expanded his plans ('choices'? ) for private healthcare.

Faced with legitimate Lib-Lab complaints that insurance undermines the core NHS notion of 'pooled risk', he said a Hague government would create an umbrella body to allow 4 million self-employed people to pool their risk, 40 per cent cheaper rates than an individual might obtain.

They're still not out of the woods, since the Fox plan would cost at least£500m in tax concessions (a modest estimate), as Milburn pointed out during their Commons clash over his 200102 spending plans for health authorities.

That would be money not available for Dr Bogle's extra medics. The mind Bogles.

In fact, the statement won a warmer welcome than you'd expect, though Tory MPs from Kent felt noisily hard-done-by in terms of cash allocations. At least 7.8 per cent this year, at least 6 per cent for the next two years - it will not be enough for Kent's problems.

'Life-expectancy for a baby boy born in Manchester is 6.5 years less than for a baby born in East Surrey, 'Mr Milburn explained.

Surrey (not Kent) is Bottomley country, where Mrs B quietly fumes at neglect by Labour ministers.

She was absent, though Ken Clarke put in an ex-health department appearance to complain that Labour 'neglected' the NHS for three years - Blair now seems to accept this point - and to warn against 'setting the [new figures] in stone' in case inflation returns, as it might.

Dr Fox was relatively civil, and Mr Milburn civil in return, though they did quarrel predictably over NICE's remit and the cash available for cancer drugs.

I was more struck by the upbeat response of Dr Ian Gibson, the North Norwich biochemist, who hailed his old trade-union colleague as 'the man with the team that cracked the postcode' for cancer drugs.

Wow! When I track-ed down the MP he and his wife had just spent four hours watching a double bill at the cinema. Hyperbole? No.

The extra£170m Mr Milburn set aside for cancer drugs is exactly the sum which CERT, the Campaign for Effective and Rational Treatment (a mixture of academics and drug firms), had estimated HAs would need to do the job.

What's more, Milburn dropped a heavy hint that NICE will give the OK to all 13 cancer drugs under review, says Gibson.

Even if the cash and the drugs are available in theory, Gibson warns that local doctors and health managers will want to snaffle it for other purposes. 'The battle's not over at local level.'