On the conference circuit this autumn I've been conscious of being generous in my remarks about the prospect of a Conservative government in regard to its policies on the NHS.

After the "single beds" drive announced in Birmingham, I saw no reason to change my mind.

Why so? Basically because I detect a strong basis for continuity and consensus, whatever the (scary) future now holds. Labour has moved fundamentally since 1997 towards embracing a mixed market and patient choice in the provision of healthcare. For their part, the Tories have been forced to accept the basic premise of Nye Bevan's settlement in 1948: a comprehensive service based on need and free at the point of use. No more patient passport talk. No slashing the NHS budget.

Rival politicians can criticise each other's policies, as Alan Johnson and Andrew Lansley have done on the conference rostrum. But there's a pragmatic tone to most of it: what works best?

My confidence is underpinned by a hunch that Mr Lansley, health secretary-in-waiting, is a decent, unflashy guy who knows the NHS very well and thinks sensibly. Last week's HSJ interview reinforced that impression. What you see is roughly what you're likely to get.

The economy question

The big question mark we now have to insert is about the economy. It all gets more serious by the day and we will not be sure we've touched bottom until well after the recovery starts, when it starts.

As the Tory conference opened in Brum I said we'd all be affected by the crisis now, and a chum replied "they did quite well in the South during the depressed Thirties". Yes, but the prosperous South might be South China next time.

So stay cheerful, but start preparing for the worst, just in case. Perhaps Alan Johnson has started already. His speech in the closing morning of Labour's Manchester conference was modest in tone and range. Facing a party audience, the health secretary stressed party themes, notably health inequality (more GPs in poor areas, a pilot for healthier free school meals, etc) though also a fresh attack on healthcare-acquired infections, vaccinations against cervical cancer, greater attention to a patient-focused NHS.

Mr Johnson's natural grace and modesty secured him a good week, whereas David Miliband's stock as a potential Labour leader slipped. Modesty does not exclude Tory-bashing, accompanied by a string of "under scrutiny" research papers which reflect Labour's frustration that the media is giving the sleek Cameroons an easy ride.

Policy patois

Having read it, do I repent my aforementioned generosity? No. Labour says Tory policy would reduce patient choice, GP access (evenings and weekends), let waiting times and quality slip. "They would allow local hospitals to go bust" and take cash from the poorest areas.

Well, maybe, though I fear Labour's own tolerance of past City excesses may do that too as the bill comes in. The one jibe which struck home with me is that the Conservatives' attitude towards hospital reconfigurations, ie closures, is "confused and opportunistic". It's easy to play "Save our hospital" - Labour MPs do it too.

What about Mr Lansley's reply in Brum? Just before his conference speech on Monday, he published a detailed "renewal plan for the NHS", written in small print. At first glance it seems to restate what he and David Cameron have been saying for months. Patient power, GP power, that sort of thing.

Room to manoeuvre

Nothing wrong with that. Political messages need constant repetition. The rabbit in the hat came in Mr Lansley's speech where he promised a huge expansion of single rooms - 45,000 more over five years - so that a Cameron government can fulfil two pledges: that such rooms are available for anyone who needs one on medical grounds or what Lansley calls to "maintain personal dignity".

For instance, all mothers giving birth can ask for one; everyone on a mental health ward will too; there will be a 7 per cent increase in such rooms to isolate anyone suspected of having a hospital infection.

Overall it would increase the proportion of single rooms from 28-55 per cent and cost£1.5bn. Big talk, big figures. Since George Osborne had spoken earlier to warn his party of tough times ahead - no money in the kitty - you are entitled to be sceptical. But it went down well.