Just a spoonful of Virginia . . .

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THAT elastic mouth spread wide across the face and the ends turned up in a smile of absolute charm. Virginia Bottomley was performing again, not inimitably, for she is highly imitable, but impressively. She moved lithely to speak. She gripped either side of the podium - what strong, capable hands are still holding our NHS safe. Her clear, deep, confident voice gave life and enthusiasm to her pre-written speech.

It is the upper-middle-class voice of an Oxbridge don, and little wonder. Mrs Bottomley is connected to generations of such worthies. Her forebears have, for a century or so, been distributing basketfuls of ideas to the poor. And now she is at it herself. Private cash can be used to fund parts of the health service] Mrs Bottomley was in an upbeat mood about this particular idea. 'We must be flexible and thoughtful, not rigid and narrow-minded.' Her voice swooped through the words. 'We must explore every avenue which leads to more cost-effective care]' On 'explore every avenue' the ghost of a tune seemed faintly to pierce the air. 'Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow . . .'

On the street outside, the Evening Standard was blazing its headline out at the afternoon's commuters: 'Cuts doom top heart hospital'. No shadow of this fell across Mrs Bottomley's speech to the CBI at its conference on 'private finance for public projects'. David Blunkett, her opposite number, has compared Virginia to Mary Poppins, personifying the spoonful of sugar with which the Conservatives hope to send bitter medicine down. He has the wrong nanny. Mrs Bottomley, every blonde, dazzling, cool, 5ft 9in of her, is Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

She is a natural for the part. Every August, Virginia gathers on the Isle of Wight with her extended family and shepherds hordes of children about the island, leading them in mass singing. When the music stops they point out the place where her grandfather lost the fountain pen with which he wrote Education and World Citizenship and discuss the sinking of the Titanic. But these times of relaxation are some way ahead. Back at the CBI's gathering, the Secretary of State for Health had finished her script; questions began, and she took them in the most delightful way.

When she first stood in Surrey in 1984 she had the smile, of course, but under questioning she could fluff her lines. By the time she was an under-secretary at the Department of the Environment, being grilled on dog mess and litter, she had developed a technique with questioners that had the most disconcerting effect. She demonstrated it now.

Wasn't it time, someone asked her, given infinite future demands from an ageing population, to decide that the NHS could provide only a core service and people would have to go to private medicine for anything more? First came that wide, warm, engulfing smile. 'It's a question often put,' she said, 'as though we are living in a climate where things are getting worse, rather than better]' Her beautiful blue eyes fixed the questioner with absolute sincerity.

Not far away, as she spoke, staff from consultants to cleaners in St Bartholomew's hospital in the City looked at the letters urging them to take redundancy, or early retirement, and asked if it could really be true that six departments in an internationally famous hospital might close. But Virginia was not concentrating on this. She was simply remembering her favourite things, her successes: the halving of cot deaths, the reduction in waiting lists. She finished her answer. That smile again. A little drop of golden sun had been made to shimmer in Centre Point. Somehow the sting of the question had melted away, for how do you hold a sunbeam in your hands?

All politicians are actors to some degree, even if at times the ability wavers. Poor doomed Norman Lamont had read out his speech to the conference in a lifeless drone, brown bags visible beneath his eyes, and refused to talk to the cameras once he had done. Not Virginia. The camera loves Virginia, it brings out her star quality, and Virginia sometimes seems to love the camera, too. Outside the conference hall she stopped to smile and repeat her lines with her flawless, even hypnotic, emphasis.

'The NHS is not for profit and it is not for sale]' her speech had declared. Now she was being quizzed about Barts and Harefield. 'No changes, no options,' she was saying. And again. 'It is well understood that a service that has no change has no options.' For governesses speak in mottoes. The long, mobile mouth, painted coral, zipped across her handsome face. 'We have to take sensible decisions,' she said, as though anyone suggested otherwise. 'We want to take forward innovative ways in which partnerships are fostered.' So what future has Barts? 'There is no question of behaving in any way other than I and my team believe will lead to the strengthening of London's position as a centre of excellence.' Nanny really does know best. We can rely on her, she says so with such conviction. Virginia Hilda Brunette Maxwell Bottomley dazzled for a last time and left.

The only time the light of that smile had failed was when she had been asked about the reshuffle. The mouth stopped at the moment of full flight across the jaw and, quite extraordinarily, turned down at the corners. Governess looked, for a few seconds, very cross indeed. But then she started up again. 'My preoccupation is in health care . . . our health service is the envy of the world . . .' And those long limbs strode off again, on to the next job, taking matters forward, as Virginia likes to do. She is too valuable in the job she does to have been moved, but her star will rise. As she left faint music could just be discerned, mingling with the terrible noise of wind which howls through the doors of Centre Point - a wind of change, or merely wind? 'Me, a name I call myself - Far, a long, long way to run.'

(Photograph omitted)

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