Election '97 : Blair shows surgical spirit

John Walsh watches Labour's leader playing the NHS card for all it's worth
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The rather surprising figure of Lord Dickie Attenborough, looking like a natty gerbil with his beard and double-breasted suit, introduced Tony Blair onto the stage of the Usher Hall, Edinburgh's answer to the Albert Hall, in front of 1,500 young devolutionists. It was, perhaps, appropriate that his entrance was preceded by clips from the film Jurassic Park as he told the audience of his interest in bringing the dinosaur of redistributed wealth back to life.

His greatest value to the Opposition leader was his embodiment of the spirit of 1945. "Those great days, 50 years ago," as Lord Attenborough quaintly remarked, "when we had faith in human beings."

As a sop to tradition he ended his speech close to tears: "Tony Blair is younger than my son, I'm very proud to have known him ... a man of integrity, vigour..." The Labour leader then bounced on.

Mr Blair's message was a warning against the Tories' "licence to kill the NHS as we know it". More to the point, was the new licence the Labour leader had discovered to deliver a speech in four different ways. There was the prepared speech, the extemporised list of campaign bullet points (minimum wage, 10-per-cent tax, an end to hereditary peers, no Royal yacht), a new and exciting initiative in which he emerges from behind the podium with the words "What do I believe, I'll tell you what I believe") and a final, exciting, anything-could-happen rhetorical burst, when his microphone cuts out and his voice rises in a crescendo of sincerity.

Earlier in the day, Mr Blair plugged the health card in the cancer wards of St Thomas's Hospital, London, assuring patients that cuts in NHS bureaucracy would subsidise big increases in patient care.

In the ward his very presence was therapeutic. The 80-year-old Bill Daniels of West Dulwich was so pleased to see him he got out of bed and walked further than he'd managed in weeks.

"I've been a Labour supporter all my life," he said proudly. "That means you must have voted in the 1945 election," beamed Mr Blair. Mr Daniels regarded him coolly. "You'd hardly have been in short trousers by then." Mr Blair admitted: "I wasn't even a twinkle in my mother's eye."

Later, he facing a small crowd of students, doctors nurses and catering staff in the governors hall, like a school assembly only with white coats.

The questions were puzzlingly low-key. Did he see the closure of small hospital units as a cost-cutting venture, or as a bid for streamlined management? The third option, that it might be the tragic destruction of the fabric of a community, didn't get a look in. Mr Blair moved into his "We-shouldn't-be-afraid-of-change" gear.

To ever-politer questions he proffered ever-blander replies: front-line patient care ... longer-term agreements ... you could tell his heart wasn't in it.

Then a fierce social worker asked about "devolved budget holdings" between the NHS and social science authorities. Mr Blair launched like a startled horse into his standard routine - decency, justice, windfall tax - like an old music hall artist who after trying some new fangled political humour, sinks gratefully back to the one about the woman on the crowded Cockfosters tube.