Let me confess right away that for the first time in many years I skipped the Tory conference in order to accompany the Blairs to China. That means I missed Ann Widdecombe's barn-storming speech and what appears to have been William Hague's barn-door-missing speech as well.

You may be reassured to know that the South China Morning Post sported a familiar headline 'Patients to be charged for anti-impotence drug' above a story explaining that 200,000 men in Hong Kong (population 6 million) are said to need it, but I quote - Hong Kongers are rich enough to afford it, so they can pay up to $HK100 (about£8) per pill to save the local health service£400m a year.

Apart from that, there was little or no health dimension to the Blairs' trip. So let me deal with it first.

Cherie Blair, who is patron of the Breast Cancer Care charity - her aunt died of it - inspected Shanghai's Medical University where they treat cancer patients using traditional Chinese remedies. Professor Yu ErXin gave her the rundown in excellent English. In effect, it is mainly used for palliative care, rather than for cure.

'Yes, it relieves the suffering, ' agreed Mrs B. 'If you improve the quality of life it helps a great deal.' She then asked: 'Can the West learn from traditional medicine? It will be interesting to see.' Her hosts gave no clear answer, though I gather the answer is yes and no. Some Chinese/alternative techniques have worked with leukemia in Britain. Others have made Brits iller.

Whether Ms Widdecombe makes us iller depends on where you start. But the Tory conference seems to have been demoralised enough to be grateful for a genuine character capable of speaking fluently, passionately and without notes. As has been remarked, Mo Mowlam was the heroine of Labour's conference.

Politics is a masculine contact sport, but they do love a strong woman in touch with her feelings.

In Bournemouth, they especially cheered Miss Widdecombe's 'bring back matron' passage. As Michael Howard might put it, she has 'something of the Nightingale' about her. But does it amount to much when the party is still going through its post-defeat trauma, its Bennite phase of drifting away from the electorate in search of its own comforting certainties?

For Europe, read unilateral nuclear disarmament circa 1982.

I don't thing so. Even where Miss Widdecombe touched on the conference's recurring theme - personal liberty - she did so in a way which is immediately open to challenge. In her most widely quoted passage she said she didn't want to 'bludgeon' people into taking out private health insurance. 'But I want to remove the guilt from people who do.'

Well, I'm all for that. When David Owen was still an MP he used to say that he used neither private schools nor healthcare, but defended the rights of others so to do. But it misses the point. I know a lot of people with BUPA, probably so do you, and I'm bound to say they never sound very guilty. They don't want to privatise the NHS - most of them - either, Alan Milburn's predictable response to La Widdecombe's speech. They just want the perks that insurance buys.

But when Orphan Annie says 'every time you supply your own health you are freeing up the NHS to look after somebody else's health' and simultaneously mocks Dobbo for rationing (see Viagra above), she's being disingenuous. Patrick Jenkin, Mrs T's health secretary, always used to say healthcare wasn't 'a zero sum' game, by which he meant that if the private sector grew it wasn't necessarily at the NHS's expense.

That is Miss Widdecombe's point too and it is true, up to a point. But hasn't US experience taught us that you can have a system that spends vastly more than we do on healthcare - 13 per cent of GNP against 6 per cent - and still fail because it's spread around wrongly?

Those who can afford to insure themselves over-insure themselves, diverting resources, people and money from those who can't afford it.

If there's money in nose jobs, it means fewer doctors go into geriatrics. That's life. Labour gets things wrong, but its preoccupation with public health and the health of the poor isn't one of them.