How Dobson got help from Upstairs

Labour's official candidate for mayor enjoyed good fortune as health secretary, but he also gave the

Question: "What happens if you don't swallow your Viagra tablet quickly enough?" Answer: "You get a stiff neck!"

Frank Dobson's famously politically incorrect sense of humour went into riotous overdrive when he found himself, as health secretary, in charge of the debate about rationing Viagra. For years Dobson has cheered up even the most gloomy gatherings with his quite funny but exceedingly dirty jokes. He'll need every ounce of his sense of humour to keep going through the next few months - though friends admit that it doesn't seem much in evidence these days.

The Dobson camp still insists that its man can win the London mayoralty election next month, despite the heavy odds against him. It believes that public anger at Labour's stitch-up of Ken Livingstone will evaporate when voters are faced with the choice in the polling-booth: a choice, they say, between a man who screwed up the GLC, and a man who can get things done.

But is Dobson the man to get things done? His own campaign letter to party members stresses his leadership qualities and points out his achievements. They start back in the Seventies when he was on the GLC and fought for new gardens, play areas and small parks. He grandly claims the credit for drawing up the proposals for establishing the new Greater London Authority and the position of mayor, though colleagues at the time insist that he initially opposed the idea. And he recounts his work in seeing off the British National Party in Millwall after it won a council seat in 1994 - something even his enemies agree he did well.

All this, however, is small beer compared to his time as health secretary. It was a job few had expected him to get in the first place. Along with other old Labour faces such as Michael Meacher, Gavin Strang and Tom Clarke, he wasn't tipped to make it to the oval table at all. When he was given the high- profile job of health secretary, the cynics soon came up with the reason why: the government was expecting bad headlines on the health service that winter, so Dobson was put there because he was expendable; he could be ditched, with the nasty stuff heaped upon him, the next spring.

It didn't turn out that way. In fact Frank Dobson's great achievement was to keep "health" out of the headlines for two successive winters - aided by mild weather and fewer nasty viruses than usual. Tony Blair acknowledged as much, asking a colleague of Dobson to pass on the message: "You can tell that godless so-and-so Frank he's done an excellent job, with a bit of help from Him Upstairs."

Dobson had engaged in a degree of preparation previously unknown, starting to lay plans for the next winter in May, and sending health-service chief executives round the country to see where trouble spots might arise.

He started to dismantle the Conservatives' internal market in the NHS; he mapped out a ten-year course for tackling health inequalities; he worked on a ban on tobacco advertising; during his tenure 36 new hospitals were approved; and he prioritised cancer and heart disease above all else. It is, by any standards, an impressive list. But most of these policies were not Dobson's own at all: they had been thought up before the election, when Dobson was not in the Health team, or they came direct from No 10.

He also inherited what is generally admitted within the Labour Party to have been the most foolish of the five pre- election pledges: to cut waiting lists by 100,000 by the time of the next election. Far too much effort went into trying to keep that pledge: doctors, health-service managers, think-tanks all warned it was a daft idea. It took Dobson's successor, Alan Milburn, to downgrade the pledge and start to concentrate on the public's real worries.

Dobson is not an "ideas" man. Londoners shouldn't look to him for bold new thoughts on solving the capital's problems. But he is a decent administrator. By all accounts he was a popular and successful team leader at Health, very good at delegating, but also at fostering team spirit. He was undoubtedly happy there. A fellow minister recalls the familiar sight of Dobson, shoeless, shirtsleeved, humming his way down the corridor with determination in his step. The King's Fund, a health think-tank, claims he gave the department a degree of "oomph", and had real political clout during his time there.

How well did he fight his corner? The government was pledged to Tory spending levels for the first two years, but in the 1998 public spending review, Health won an extra £18bn - or £9bn in more realistic non-spin-doctor accounting - over three years. Dobson announced it as "the biggest health crusade the country has seen since the NHS was born 50 years ago".

In retrospect that seems ambitious hype. The money wasn't nearly enough, and helped provoke the health-service crisis and tumbling public satisfaction figures we saw last winter, followed by a real attack of panic inside the government. It needed Blair's personal engagement, and the far more dramatic increase in spending unveiled in the recent Budget to sort out the crisis. Again, you could say that was Gordon Brown's failure, but Dobson was the man holding the thermometer when the patient's temperature started to rise.

Seeing Dobson today, it's hard not to feel sorry for him. He has been the victim of Downing Street's mishandling of the whole mayoral business; but has also not helped himself by a series of gaffes. Attacking redheads ("my mother told me always to steer clear of them") after Chris Evans donated £100,000 to Ken Livingstone's campaign misfired badly when Evans promptly doubled his donation. And he still fails to sound convincing when asserting that he really wants the job. Even his supposed supporters are no more than lukewarm about the campaign he has fought since becoming Labour's candidate; his friends are asking what will become of him now.

He would undoubtedly handle the job of mayor competently enough, but he would be unlikely to transform the lives of Londoners. A much less colourful character than either Ken Livingstone or Steve Norris, Mayor Dobson would not be making the headlines all the time. In due course he would no doubt even develop a great new line in clean jokes about London. But without a major upset in the short time before polling day, it doesn't look as though he'll get the chance. A decent man who has not deserved the violent abuse he's been soaking up in recent weeks, Dobson has clearly not had any help from Him Upstairs on this one.