On the dry pages of Hansard, there are occasionally brief exchanges that shed light on life as eloquently as a short story by Anton Chekhov.

One took place between Conservative backbencher James Gray and health minister Ben Bradshaw during this month's health question time. The fact that it concerned the fate of Chippenham's 73-bed community hospital in Mr Gray's North Wiltshire constituency was appropriate too - some of Dr Chekhov's short stories took place in Russian medical equivalents of South West England.

Mr Gray challenged ministers on the "deep and damaging cuts'' - from 43 general medical beds to 30, now to a mere 10 - being planned by Wiltshire primary care trust. "Not viable from an economic or a medical standpoint,'' he said.

The minister came prepared. The PCT has decided to cut medical bed numbers to 20, not 10, he replied. This is because it has halved delayed discharges and introduced district nursing teams. What's more, the maternity unit is being expanded (the 20-bed specialist stroke unit stays) and the PCT is bidding for capital funding (£17m) to modernise the hospital, which started life as a Victorian workhouse. The (Conservative) county council's overview and scrutiny committee has signed off on it all.

As answers go, that reads like a slam dunk or a fox being shot. As he confirmed when we spoke later, the 10-not-20 beds detail pleased Mr Gray, but caught him by surprise. It might have reflected second thoughts caused by a 25,000-strong petition, his own meeting with local health officials ("a frightful barney") and a 300-strong public protest meeting a few days earlier, he suggested.

Such scenes could have happened in many parts of England where reconfiguration is taking place. That same day, Banbury's Tory MP, Tony Baldry, protested that plans for North Oxfordshire would be published over the Easter weekend. St Ives Liberal Democrat Andrew George complained of "centrally dictated" decisions (denied) on the location of a new health centre.

In James Gray's instance, redress of a sort was instantly available. Just before midnight, he staged a Commons adjournment debate, a 30-minute joust with, yes, the same Mr Bradshaw in a near-deserted house.

So we got the whole story. Local anger at a loss of services, too little consultation, apparent illogicality at a time when Chippenham's popular hospital had been running at 96 per cent capacity during winter months when sick, elderly patients could not easily be discharged.

Barely two years ago, ministers had warned the local strategic health authority against closure of community hospitals. Yet Westbury, Trowbridge, Melksham and Devizes had since been closed, Malmesbury "effectively closed" and other sharp cuts made. Why? Mr Gray suspected that government pressure to centralise hospital care lay behind the PCT's decisions - "decent enough people" but doing Whitehall's work, as they had been when they mothballed a ward at Chippenham. The 40,000-strong town (set to become 50,000) is halfway between major hospitals at Swindon and Bath, whose overspill patients Chippenham has taken in.

It is not hard to see what policies lie behind the PCT's decisions: the desire to specialise some treatments, the desire to expand community services which treat patients in their own homes. Mr Bradshaw trotted them all out with his usual courtesy.

As for financial pressures and Mr Gray's complaint that Wiltshire gets£1,155 per NHS head,£27 less than next-door Hampshire,£270 less than Northumberland, the minister did not say "but Wiltshire is healthier"; he did rattle off daunting increases in health funding in recent years. Wiltshire PCT is up from£341m in 2003-04 to£569m in 2008-09.

But the killer fact is, surely, that the Tory overview and scrutiny committee has backed the plans. Mr Gray is puzzled. Tory councillors have backed the protests, yet they failed to get the plans referred to the independent reconfiguration panel. It looks as if the committee did not realise it could do that. As for community services, "good in theory, but a big gulf in practice,'' the MP briskly notes.

In truth, they are all "decent enough people" struggling to do their best: PCT, MPs, voters. Who will get the blame for disappointments and misunderstanding? Time will tell.