My conclusion, Watson, is that it is what street urchins call a cock-up, not a conspiracy

'Mark my words, Dr Watson. In this strange affair of the disappearing advertisement you would be well to watch out for a tall Texan. He will be found to hold the key to the mystery.'

'But that is extraordinary, my dear Holmes. The advertisement which caused all the fuss in the popular press was placed in the Official Journal of the European Union. &Quot;Ojoo,&Quot; as it is called, is not circulated in Texas. And the tip to The Guardianand The Timesappears to have come from trade unions. Also not big on the Texan scene, so I am informed.'

'You're right doctor, up to a point. The health secretary, Mrs William Birtles - Ms Hewitt as she is known in the modern fashion - only became aware of a problem towards the end of an informal meeting with M'Lord Warner and representatives of social partners. It took place on 29 July at No 1 Parliament Street, adjacent to their department. Did it not?'

'Indeed. And sections of the offending advert were disclosed by Ms Gail Cartmail of Amicus? She asked why it was so broadly couched as to appear to suggest that all services provided by primary care trusts - PCTs as we now call them - could be taken over by private contractors, those with experience of handling over£300m worth of business a year. Ministers dashed back to their offices, read the offending text and withdrew it.'

'The average budget of a PCT is£300m, Watson. I read it in your copy of The Lancet. That is the sole significance of the sum.'

'It does you credit to still read it Holmes, considering that my own professional body, the British Medical Association, is as alarmist as the unions in talking of &Quot;secret plans to privatise the NHS&Quot;.'

'The BMA is also a union, Watson; it has vested interests. Mr Lansley, the Conservative spokesman, Professor Webb who speaks for what we once knew as the Liberal Party, and, of course, Mr Dobson, a friend of Mr Brown's, all sounded the alarm. That is what Opposition is for. Mr Dobson, you recall, is gunning for Mrs Birtles' patron, Mr Blair.'

'But what is this really about, Holmes. I am mystified.'

'My conclusion, Watson, is that it is what street urchins call a cock-up, not a conspiracy. As Ms Hewitt made clear last summer after the unfortunate Nigel Crisp - alas, what became of him? - gave the same people a scare over Commissioning a Patient-led NHS, no PCT will be forced to contract out functions.'

'Yet she placed the OJEU ad.'

'No, Watson, it was placed without her knowledge, nor seen by the department's communications directorate. It was regarded as routine, an EU requirement that all public services tendering be advertised across the Union, even in France. It was written in broad terms as a framework contract, one that PCTs could use without incurring additional expense. It was kindly meant.'

'But, Holmes, the social partners were already suspicious after the Derbyshire PCT court case and Oxfordshire's attempt last year at private commissioning.'

'Each case was different. Derbyshire wants UnitedHealth to provide GPs in under-doctored areas, understandably I would venture. Oxon got a little ahead of itself. Do remember, Watson, commissioning is not the same as providing. Nor is it as easy as the old days when it meant simply handing out block grant money. PCTs may now welcome expert help.'

'Holmes, I have just realised that when Mrs Birtles - Ms Hewitt rather - talks about data processing and the like she is hinting that the ingenious Dr Foster's analysts may soon be getting a slice of PCT pie. Now I understand. But you have still not explained the tall Texan's role.'

'My dear Watson. The advert came from the department's commercial directorate, a gung-ho bunch of chaps from the private sector who would not recognise a political nuance if one assaulted them up a dark alley.

'Their boss, Kenneth Anderson Esquire, is a larger than life fellow, excellently sound, I am assured. He is also unmistakably a citizen of the Lone Star state. Even you would spot his accent.'

'Sloppy language from the management consultant crowd, eh? Or a revealing error? This row may rumble on, Holmes.'

'Elementary, Mr dear Watson. The conference season looms.'

Michael White is assistant editor (politics) of The Guardian.