'There's no point replacing meddling by national politicians with meddling by local ones.'

Strange to tell, but the cash-and-closure problems of the NHS, which have generated headlines in recent days, were not a primary target of the Liberal Democrats when they gathered at Brighton for their first conference of the Ming Dynasty.

Obviously, the week's leadership performance of 65-year-old Sir Menzies Campbell was always going to be the focal point of interest for party activists, with a lively media sub-plot involving Charles Kennedy.

Personally, I was slightly disappointed not to find a tanker full of Diet Coke - 'Special delivery for Mr Kennedy, guv'nor' - blocking the seafront on my arrival. The former leader's fondness for the awful stuff in mid-morning was the one thing I saw as evidence of a drink problem. It features a lot in Greg Hurst's excellent new biography Charles Kennedy, A Tragic Flaw.

In my search for NHS drama on the conference floor - as distinct from fringe events, where the 'health hotel' is an established institution at all three conferences - led me little further than Wednesday's debate on nutrition: wholesome in itself but not enough to live on politically.

I turned to Britain After Blair, the successor to The Orange Book, which caused so much trouble when a chapter by brainy MP and ex-banker David Laws suggested an insurance base for NHS funding. No such luck this time. There is no NHS chapter. Instead, there are generous tributes to Labour's efforts to reduce Margaret Thatcher's legacy of gross inequality across society, offset by a brisk record of its failures.

The rise in male life expectancy from 74.5 to 77 since 1997 (women rose 1.5 years to 81) seems to be attributed to work on the 'big killers', heart disease and cancer, which, incidentally, nearly got Sir Ming in 2002-03. But the class gap is wider, as it is for the Lib Dems' other two bugbears, obesity and mental health. Even heavy smoking remains a class issue, despite Labour's efforts. In Brighton, I find top Lib Dems smoking in the street.

When I caught up with Steve Webb, MP for Northavon, the party's health spokesman told me how surprised he was by research from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence: 60 per cent of elderly patients are malnourished on admission to hospital. Hence the call for national nutrition standards and fewer of those 17 million meals being thrown away each year.

But why the relatively low NHS profile in Brighton, apart from his own Q&A session with rising star Julia Goldsworthy MP? The reason is simple: Professor Webb, as I still think of him, has a fundamental policy review under way that will take another year.

He wants an independent NHS, at arm's length like the Bank of England's monetary policy committee which has so well sustained steady growth. 'The question is, can we combine that with local accountability?' he asks.

'If we can promise no more meddling by politicians, the 1.3m people who work in the NHS will be delighted. But we risk a mixed message. There's no point replacing meddling by national politicians with meddling by local ones. The message has to be not &Quot;Vote for me and I will meddle better,&Quot; but &Quot;no meddling&Quot;.'

Which leads me to those claims in The Timesthat Patricia Hewitt let ex-health minister and party chair Hazel Blears into a 'heat map' chat about NHS closures in marginal Labour seats. It was news to MPs like Wolverhampton South West's Rob Marris, whose local eye hospital, 150 years old, is earmarked for closure in Labour's 56th most vulnerable seat. He is not alone.

We have noted before how Tory MPs in Hertfordshire are adamant that, where closures are needed, their surplus sites are the ones being closed. That said, reconfiguration plans were proposed ahead of the last election, when Labour lost the very seats where hospitals are losing services. Certainly that is Steve Webb's experience in Northavon. He is suspicious. He even wonders who put the British Medical Association up to backing the closure plans.

Commons health select committee chair Kevin Barron, who warned against closures and mergers being dictated by 'the loudest voice', wants proof. 'If there is evidence we will discuss it in the select committee,' he promises. My impression is that the story faded and didn't make the BBC precisely because the evidence was shaky.

Michael White is assistant editor (politics) ofThe Guardian .