'Cameron promised a bare knuckle fight. He certainly got one'

I have never been a great fan of opposition politicians' hit lists, whatever party. They usually strike me as opportunist or misconceived. 'Don't do that, you'll regret it when you're back in power,' I tell them. You may be shocked to learn that they do not listen.

So last week I arrived at work to find a Conservative research document - Do District General Hospitals Have a Future Under Labour? with an appendix listing maternity and accident and emergency departments 'under threat' at 29 English hospitals.

It was timed to coincide with opposition leader David Cameron's return from holiday to tour regional district hospitals - threatened and safe - where he promised prime minister Gordon Brown a 'bare knuckle fight' over closures.

Well, he certainly got one. Within hours of the list's appearance it was clear there was something wrong with it. Irate trust chairs and others issued statements on the lines of 'not us, guv'.

Tory MP for North west Norfolk Henry Bellingham apologised to staff at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in King's Lynn for their inclusion.

Some trusts admitted that reorganisation is under consideration. But Labour officials in Whitehall stirred the pot, saying at least eight, probably 10, of the 29 listings were plain wrong.

The Tories put their hands up and admitted that Altrincham General hospital in Cheshire had been included instead of Trafford General in Manchester. Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley had spotted the error but a researcher had forgotten to correct it.

It did not prevent the media from making a 'Cameron in disarray' meal of it. The perception was reinforced by mid-month polls giving Mr Brown a 10-point lead.

Mr Lansley's gallant admission that he is 'not infallible' helped keep it going. But in all the verbal warfare the Tories stuck to the original Cameron claim: voters want their taxes spent on doctor-led district hospitals, not the super-hospitals which health minister Ara Darzi's review seems to have in mind.

'People simply do not understand why maternity units and A&E units are being shut down when A&E admissions are up and births are up,' the Tory leader said. They are 12 per cent up, added Mr Lansley.

The pair, who were touring hospitals together on the day the effluent hit the bedpan, felt vindicated when health secretary Alan Johnson used the bank holiday weekend to announce maternity mergers in greater Manchester.

This included the reduction to midwife-led status of the unit at Hope hospital, Salford, where local MP Hazel Blears joined a picket line despite being a government minister: very New Labour post-modern. Yet I recall her once telling me how you had to persuade people that bigger units are safer and better.

Mr Johnson and Bristol South MP Dawn Primarolo, his new number two, insist that the cuts are medical, not cash-driven, as Manchester consultant Alan Emerson said in a polite clash with Mr Lansley on Radio 4's Today programme. Ms Primarolo had wisely declined such opportunities: Mr Lansley usually has more NHS facts at his fingers than any MP I know. Putting a doctor up against him is smarter.

A silly season spat? Sort of. Norfolk's Mr Bellingham seems to have retracted his apology. His ancestor assassinated Tory prime minister Spencer Perceval in 1812, Tories queued to remind me.

Mr Lansley insists the data justifying large, specialist maternity units as likely to prevent perinatal deaths is 10 years old, comes from California and relates only to very tiny babies. These reconfigurations are largely driven by the impact on staffing of the European Union working time directive, which ministers could adjust, he says.

Unapologetically, Mr Lansley also cites the Journal of Emergency Medicine research suggesting that a longer journey equals greater risk. Mothers-to-be in Bury or Rochdale, north of the M60, are right to worry about distances, he tells everyone.

Labour claims the data itself is old. It remains adamant the Tories screwed up and angered the NHS: Tories want to empower doctors, but ignore them when it suits though lives are at stake, say officials. Risky stuff. This week's Guardian/ICM poll says voters now mistrust Labour more on the NHS.