Media: The great interrogator meets his match

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Perhaps Labour's spin doctors, threatening to boycott the `Today' programme after John Humphrys roughed up Harriet Harman, should remember how coolly a minister handled another tough opponent last week on the testing medium of television. In one corner, Alan Milburn, health minister; in the other, Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight inquisitor ...

The first surprise was the body language. Interviewer and interviewee were in earnest conversation under the studio lights - one relaxed, composed and focused, the other hunched, twisted and red-faced. No surprises there except... could this be Jeremy Paxman, of the withering eyebrow and contemptuous slouch, reduced to a state of quivering expostulation?

It was. A more discombobulated Newsnight presenter you will rarely see. The source of his irritation was the health minister Alan Milburn, who can now lay claim to membership of that elite club of those who have worsted television's most aggressive inquisitor.

Mr Milburn is a rising star in the Blair government. With his soft Geordie burr, his steely intellect and that way of narrowing his eyes, he is born for the camera. He was voted Minister to Watch in the recent Spectator magazine awards. Straight-talking and direct, he also has that indispensable ministerial quality: the capacity to make the incredible sound convincing.

He triumphed last Tuesday when he was invited on to Newsnight to defend the Government's plans for the NHS, published in a White Paper earlier in the day. Much is riding on these plans since their outcome will determine whether Labour can continue to claim to be the party of the NHS.

Mr Paxman began by demanding to know how many NHS managers would go as a result of the changes. This was a neat conceit, as Mr Milburn made his name in opposition by embarrassing ministers with a series of meticulously researched questions about the rise in the number of managers under their NHS reforms. Indeed, his reputation as a backbencher was built on his capacity to crunch numbers and fire questions like Exocet missiles at his unsuspecting targets.

On this occasion the capacity had temporarily deserted him. True, the Government had calculated that savings of pounds 1bn would accrue as a result of cuts in red tape, but curiously Mr Milburn was quite unable to translate this into jobs.

Yet it hardly seemed to matter. Mr Paxman repeated the question six times, growing steadily more exasperated, while Mr Milburn remained so relaxed, clear-eyed and good-natured we would have believed that fish could fly if he had said so. pounds 1bn of savings? That'll do nicely, minister.

Next Mr Paxman, leaning forward and twisting awkwardly in his chair, broached the subject of NHS rationing. For ministers, this is strictly a no-go area. Dodge, dissemble and divert, but at all costs do not answer the question. But that is not in Mr Milburn's straight-talking nature. So he did the only thing he could do. Denied that there was a need for rationing. Anywhere. Ever.

Here is an edited extract:

Paxman: Do I understand you correctly? You are seriously saying there is no need for any kind of rationing in the health service?

Milburn: What I am saying is that over time there will be fair access to services in the NHS.

Paxman: That is not quite the same thing. Are you saying there is no need for ... rationing?

Milburn: Let me explain ... hip replacements vary five-fold among areas, cervical screening varies ... we think these variations are unacceptable and what the White Paper does is say there will be new standards and access to care ...

Paxman: I understand that, but ... any rationing?

Milburn: I am saying that treatment should be available according to clinical need.

Paxman: So that means no rationing?

Milburn: What that means is that we put doctors and nurses in the driving seat ... It's they who are best placed to decide what patients need and with the greatest respect, Jeremy, I can't decide and neither can you.

Paxman: rolling his eyes, jabbing his finger, face puce, lost for words.

Poor Mr Paxman. He is used to politicians answering questions entirely different from those put to them or not answering them at all. But a flat denial of the facts? For that he was unprepared.

Again it seemed not to matter. Mr Milburn's seamless switch from his opening denial to an account of the unacceptable variations in care to his pledge to put doctors and nurses in the driving seat can have left no viewer in any doubt. The NHS is safe as long as Mr Milburn's hands are on the wheel.

Jeremy Laurance is health correspondent of `The Independent'.