With the global banking network near meltdown, we're all on a sharp learning curve. So here's a tip for David Cameron: don't use the distress of NHS patients such as the late Elizabeth Woods to make party-political points.

By now that simple point ought to be what Peter Mandelson ("Should I join Gordon's cabinet, Tony?") called a "no-brainer". As every NHS staffer knows, it usually ends in tears. It did after the Tory leader's party conference speech in Birmingham.

Overall, I felt Cameron did well during his difficult week in Brum. How to balance the search for party advantage with sounding relevant, patriotic and responsible in such a crisis? Not everyone liked Dave's speech (too long), but I thought it well-judged.

Overall, that is. When it came to the NHS and Mrs Woods, my heart sank. You just knew the story wouldn't stand up properly. Remember "Jennifer's Ear", Labour's cack-handed effort to play the same trick in the 1992 campaign? Remember Rose Addis, the grandma exploited by the Tories in 2002?

The story

In case you were in Iceland sorting out your bank account, John Woods and his daughter, Catherine, were deeply distressed by their mother's treatment at the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals trust, where she used to be a nurse for many years.

Mrs Woods, 63, had been battling cancer for seven years. In June she was readmitted. She caught pneumonia but also MRSA and died. The ward was dirty and some staff disrespectful, like something out of a 17th century asylum, Mr Woods told Cameron in a letter.

The Department of Health does not deny the basic complaint. The Oxford trust has had its problems: "London costs but no London weighting"; financial cuts; a shortage of nursing staff; and only a "fair" assessment in the Healthcare Commission's last report.

In 2006-07 it also had 101 cases of MRSA, though that was down to 11 cases in the quarter up to June 2008. What Cameron's speech dismissed as "top-down targets" from Whitehall do work, though Dave wants to get rid of them as MRSA rates fall everywhere.

Playing with perception

Where Cameron was seriously out of line was twofold. Mrs Woods "caught MRSA and died", he said, implying that MRSA killed her. That's not what the death certificate says. Perhaps she did, but it's not for him to say. It's for those medics he is so keen to empower.

Second, the Tory leader told all 3,000 of us in Brum's Symphony Hall that "I sent the (Woods) letter to Alan Johnson, the health secretary. This was his reply".

He then listed the four official avenues for complaint before adding, "God, we need to change all that", to loud applause.

Except that it now transpired that Cameron's private office (nothing to do with Andrew Lansley by the way) forwarded the Woods letter with a one-line cover note and got a two-page reply, signed by Alan Johnson, expressing condolence and regret.

The quoted complaints procedures were part of that letter. But Cameron's audience was left with the impression that the reply was just an insensitive act of bureaucratic proceduralism. Yes?

Selective quotation

Well, that's what I thought. I flinched. Journalists know all about selective quotation. We do it all the time. It's wrong. From a party leader in a major speech, it amounts to a lie and no amount of family distress - which was clearly very real - excuses it. I'm disappointed and Cameron should worry. Polls suggest many voters still don't trust him.

Naturally the press split on partisan lines, the Mirror attacking Cameron's deceit, the Daily Mail concentrating on "I had to scrub filthy wards, says daughter". Bad stuff and a further step down a slippery slope to invasion of patient privacy, as Labour's counter-attack (in which outraged hospital managers connived) did in the Rose Addis case.

That leaves me little to say about Gordon Brown's reshuffle in which Ivan Lewis was replaced as social care minister by Phil Hope. Son of a senior copper, now aged 53 and MP for Corby since 1997, the former youth organiser's ministerial career rise has been gentle.

He was in his last job at the cabinet office only nine months. Moving people who know their brief (Lewis) or are only now learning it (Hope) is another dirty habit party leaders should abandon.