'Labour MPs like Johnson, indeed they would have made him deputy leader'

Alan Johnson's debut week was a mysteriously disorientating one in several ways. Even his name proved a source of confusion to many - and of joy to the cartoonists. Was he the new health secretary, we wondered, or the newly freed BBC correspondent in Gaza with the unexpected 't'?

That wasn't all. Just as Mr Johnson was announcing that Baghdad-born Armenian polymath Professor Sir Ara Darzi would be reviewing the NHS over the coming year, foreign NHS doctors were all over the papers for less wholesome reasons: those failed bomb plots.

I must admit to being surprised that medical lifesavers could do what the Glasgow and London suspects are accused of, and was ticked off for naivety by a foreign-born friend during a weekend country walk. Osama bin Laden's number two Ayman al-Zawahiri is a medic and it's nothing to do with the day job, they say.

I am further indebted to my old chum Michael Binyon for pointing out in The Times that medicine and engineering are highly prestigious careers in Islam, especially the former since modern western medicine rests on the achievements of Islam in its medieval heyday.

They are globally mobile professions, too. Not every newcomer likes the West and as Gordon Brown announced, his ministers will be checking up on security checks.

That's not our problem, say health department chums, our duty is solely to vet medical qualifications.

Sir Ara's appointment is cheerier and less mysterious. Rarely have I heard a man attract so much praise, as both the kind of doctor whose prestige may bring his own gut-hostile profession back on side and as a committee man. His London hospital review - due to be published on Wednesday - is admired by new ministers. 'He's a really good, well-rounded guy,' says one MP not given to hyperbole.

The Darzi technique deployed - widespread and inclusive consultation - will be used in the wider all-England review, but not necessarily come up with the same solutions. Polyclinics, for example, may be inappropriate outside cities.

Mind you, Conservative health spokesman Andrew Lansley, who survived another Cameron purge (and tells me he is determined to be health secretary one day) was openly scornful of Sir Ara's appointment. Labour has lost its way, when contrasted with the Cameroons' newly published and decentralising plans (see 'Cameron pledges end to politically driven targets').

'We set out a blueprint; come on, steal our clothes,' he taunted Mr Johnson.

It's not clear yet how much Mr Johnson wanted to be health secretary, though many people I talk to share my view that it is a good job to have, especially now that the Hewitt regime has gone a long way to bully trusts into better financial shape. His job, they agree, is to restore battered staff and patient morale.

Good, then, that Mr Johnson is a canny negotiator whose skill during the student top-up fees imbroglio in 2003-04 (he was higher education minister under Charles Clarke) helped rescue the bill. Labour MPs like him, indeed they would have made him deputy leader.

'There's a good buzz around the department,' says my man on the health tea trolley.

Yet MPs noted that Mr Johnson's Commons debut was a bit thin. The one policy shift was an end to 'centrally dictated top-down restructuring' (MPs all went 'ahhh' when he said that), though some wondered how easily the new localism sat with the extra top-down cash he announced to tackle hospital infections.

Still not clear is the new government's attitude towards the private sector, notably independent sector treatment centres. Do those curbs on the second wave suggest a tiptoe away from them on the basis of cost-effectiveness or merely reflect that the NHS is now delivering much more and needs them less? A bit of both, my enquiries suggest.

One last mystery. Patricia Hewitt told this column that she walked. I see no reason to disbelieve her. But an old friend of Ms Hewitt's insists she really wanted to keep the health job, but saw the writing on Gordon's wall.

'She became too much the manager, too little the politician. By the end she was hated. So unfair.'

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

See 'Hewitt should not be a patsy for the health service's mistakes'