Labour leaders singled out doctors' conservatism at last week's party conference. But while Frank Dobson skirted around the issue, Tony Blair went for the jugular. Patrick Butler was there

So did he or did he not slight the doctors? Health secretary Frank Dobson is the master of the sledgehammer insult and the bloodextracting jibe; if he did have a go at the British Medical Association in his party conference speech it was with uncharacteristic subtlety.

The key phrase came almost as an aside in a routine critique of the Conservatives: 'We reject the conservatism about the NHS. Both the conservatism of those who want to scrap it and the conservatism of those - and there are a few about - who want to fossilise it.'

Mr Dobson also made great play of initiatives that irritate the BMA: he announced 17 new primary care walk in centres, and had as his warm-up act two nurses from NHS Direct in West Yorkshire, who went on stage to sing the praises of the 24-hour helpline.

But that was it. The slight, if it was one, was slight. And in a brief address to the Royal College of Nursing fringe meeting an hour later he even praised doctors for ceding their 'monopoly on decision-making' to enable Labour's primary care reforms to take hold.

Earlier in the week, prime minister Tony Blair had been much more confrontational, accusing the BMA of seeking to slow down Labour's plans for the NHS.

More generally, he suggested that those opposed to the New Labour project were 'the forces of conservatism, the cynics, the elites, the establishment'.

He said: 'A predecessor of mine famously said she wanted to go into the hospital of her choice 'on the day I want, with the doctor I want'. That was Margaret Thatcher's argument for going private.

'I want to go into the hospital of my choice, on the day I want, at the time I want. And I want it on the NHS. I say in all frankness to the BMA. You want our reforms to slow down. I want them to speed up.'

Would Mr Dobson really want to pick a fight with the doctors at conference? To most Labour supporters the medics are still on the side of the angels, and what delegates look to Mr Dobson for is his homely restatement of Old Labour verities: Tories and private healthcare bad, caring health professionals good.

Thus within a minute of starting his speech he launched into a rapturously received dig at the private sector. His announcement of the first round of NHS walk-in centres on 19 July coincidentally precipitated the closure of a raft of private walk-in centres outside London the very next day, he gloated.

'And today, I can report to you that the NHS walk-in centre in Birmingham has decided on its new premises. It's the one abandoned by the private sector. And with the NHS, of course, it will be free. Who says the NHS can't compete and can't provide top quality?'

There was also a reminder to delegates that a general election was not too far away, a cue for the Tories to get a kicking. 'They never really accepted the NHS, that's why they spend all their time running it down and dreaming up ways to privatise it.

'And if you don't believe that they want to privatise it, look what they did to NHS dentistry. They never announced it would disappear. They were too devious for that. They just got on with it.'

Mr Dobson gave a very vague hint that more money would be made available for the NHS.

'Everyone knows there is more to do.

That is why the prime minister said on Tuesday that because of the success of Gordon Brown's economic strategy we will continue to get more money into hospitals in a way we can sustain year on year.'

The aim, said Mr Dobson, was, 'a one-nation health service. Superior in principle. Successful in practice.

Fabulously popular. Funded by all.

Supported by all. Used by all. That's what we believe in and that's what we are going to deliver.'

Polls published earlier in the week had suggested that public support for Labour's stewardship of the NHS was slipping. Mr Dobson advised delegates to disregard what the media were saying and to judge the NHS on their own experience. 'The question is. . . how is it for you?'

It would be wrong to suggest that Labour is in trouble over the NHS. But the 'disregard the media, trust your own experience' plea was exactly the tactic employed by former health secretary Stephen Dorrell in the dying days of the last Conservative administration. And it didn't work for him.

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Booked appointments for cancer and cataract patients from next year.

Another 17 walk-in primary care centres will be opened, bringing the total to 36.

£23m from lottery funds to buy 15 scanners and linear accelerators for cancer units.

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