POLITICS

It has been a turbulent week on the medical disciplinary front, what with the protracted fallout from the Bristol Royal Infirmary affair, of which more in a moment. But at Westminster life goes on in the form of that eternal tit-for-tat over hospital closures and waiting lists.

'You did worse than we did!'

'No, we didn't.'

'Yes, you did. Nar-nar, nar-nar-nar. . .'

Why is it that politicians have to stay in adversarial mode when dealing with problems they know very well are deeply intractable? Partly because they do believe they can change the world (otherwise, they'd be chefs or accountants), partly because this particular Opposition day debate was Ann Widdecombe's debut, partly because they get cheery feedback.

Rosie Winterton, ex-Prescott aide and Royal College of Nursing stalwart, who is now Labour MP for Doncaster Central, caught it well, if innocently, during the debate.

In his own speech Frank Dobson had sceptically noted that all sorts of NHS professionals are now sidling up to him, saying they'd always opposed the internal market and were 'secret members of the resistance all along'.

But Rosie took such talk at face value. 'Before the general election I visited my local hospital. Staff morale was at an all-time low and management was in despair.

A few weeks ago I returned to the hospital to present the staff awards. The atmosphere was completely different.

The mood of staff and management was so much more upbeat. . .'

I cannot believe it is all attributable to the extra£1.7m which Doncaster health authority has been given in return for promising to get its waiting list down from a (locally modest) 5,773 last May to 4,600 by 1 April 1999. Nor its£150,000 to help pioneer the healthy schools project, admirable though that is. Let alone to its 'excellent progress' on primary care reorganisation, which is causing grief elsewhere.

No, it is surely (at least, in part) that Ms Winterton is now Donny's MP. Therefore, people smile on her and whinge to others - the Rosie Scenario, so to speak. That is human nature, and also explains why Kent's Tory MPs could be as indignant as they were about East Kent HA's drastic restructuring plans.

As you may recall, Mr Dobson had made a pre-emptive strike on the Today programme by announcing '2,000 extra beds made available to the NHS which would not otherwise be available', plus 1,000 beds reprieved from closure, all thanks to Gordon Brown's Budget largesse. The beds weren't all quite that new, as the Tories claimed and a spot check by The Independent confirmed.

Nonetheless, the BMA welcomed the reversal of the Bottomley-Dorrell closure trend. Were ex-ministers contrite? Of course not. 'Are acute beds in the NHS going to increase by 3,000?' asked Mr Dorrell himself.

In practical terms, yes, replied Dobbo, though we will not get what he called the 'crackpot statistics' until next year.

Very Dobsonian. But there is often cunning behind Mr Dobson's bluff facade. Not for nothing is he the only member of the present Cabinet to have wangled a ticket for the legendary 1966 World Cup final, though he was then a 26-year-old electrical administrator rather than Our Minister in Toulouse as he was on Monday night.

To take a more recent example, how about that Dobsonian outburst on Newsnight after the General Medical Council struck off two of those Bristol doctors but spared the third, Mr Dhasmana? Miss Widdecombe joined the general outcry against the health secretary for interference. That was my own instinct too. But there is another explanation.

Throughout his career in various jobs, the People's Frank has been a defender of professional self-regulation, resistant to consumerist fads. So, for example, he does not want individual doctors identified, only units, in the new NHS 'death leagues'.

Might the paradox behind his outburst be the frustration of a man who wants the GMC to get its newly invigorated procedures right - and is cross when they kick an own goal?