Devolving power to the front line is a crucial test for Brown, an instinctive centraliser.

History will not recall that Conservative health spokesman Andrew Lansley was among the very first to stick one on Gordon Brown in the opening days of his leadership contest. So I had better do the job on history's behalf.

It happened like this. In his leadership statement Tony Blair's heir-all-too-apparent had included the creation of 10 new eco-towns; a bit like Prince Charles's Poundbury project in Dorset, but even greener with a capital G.

The first will be in Northstowe in Mr Lansley's South Cambridgeshire constituency. 'In fact, this was an idea pioneered two years ago by the local Conservative council,' he indignantly protested.

I mention the exchange to remind anyone monitoring the Labour leadership contest against excessive expectations of Mr Brown, or damning him from the start. As Mr Blair's political obits showed, in 1997 he was burdened with expectations which could only sour.

Owning up

Politicians are fallible, they make mistakes. Mr Brown exaggerated his claim and Mr Lansley exaggerated what he had claimed. Both Mr Blair and Mr Brown have been acknowledging a few mistakes since 1997. We should encourage this spirit of 'humility' by which the chancellor promises to rule. That means not trampling on it.

One such error turns out to be NHS reform. 'Despite all the great work that has been done to bring in the reforms we've still got a lot to do to show people that the health service is going to move into the modern era as a health service that is there for people when they need it,' he told Andrew Marr on the BBC's Sunday AM.

'So I'm going to spend some time looking at how we can prepare the health service for the modern world in a way that I think both staff and the patients and the health service will find very attractive,' declared Mr Brown, who has been talking of education as his passion, but health as his priority. Affordable housing too, by the sound of it.

Next morning the Daily Mail whipped up other remarks about restoring out-of-hours GP services and improving walk-in centres as a 'showdown' with doctors to get better value for their costly new contracts. Alarmed medical spokesmen rushed to the TV studios to protest.

Too soon to judge

My instinct is to say 'don't panic'. Mr Brown has a lot to worry about, in getting on top of a new job in a bigger league. He has a new health secretary to appoint, though his promise to visit NHS staff and 'listen and learn' suggests he has listened and learned from Patricia Hewitt, who has visited many frontline staff.

As you may have heard he is no longer keen (if he ever was) on giving the NHS an independent board to 'take it out of politics', as he did the Bank of England. Ministers must make decisions, but he would like to devolve 'maximum local autonomy for doctors and consultants, nurses and managers, who are getting on with the job on a day-to-day basis'.

Devolving power to the front line is a crucial test for Brown, an instinctive centraliser who is this week being told to centralise more - create a PM's department at No 10 - by Blair's delivery chief Sir Michael Barber. But, just as important, does he believe in NHS choice, competition and 'contestability' via private sector providers?

The Alan Milburn crowd say he does not, if you probe deep down. The Hewitt camp insists he is sound, but the evidence so far is mixed. When left-wing challenger John McDonell complained about ruinous private finance initiative costs during a Fabian Society debate I attended, Mr Brown defended it as the best means to build hospitals.

But when Andrew Marr asked him about open markets on TV he argued that 'healthcare is quite different from any other activity in the economy'.

He means that most of us rely on doctors to make our expert choices and that accident and emergency or maternity are usually local monopolies. He is also saying foundation trusts have 'worked very well' - medics and managers are effective and locally accountable - but he is bothered by the debt issue.

In short, he voices support for a role for the private sector, but not quite in Blair's uncritical way. He woos NHS staff, but will demand value for money. It is too soon to say what it means.

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