Election '97: Farmers demand head of Hogg

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The Independent Online
Douglas Hogg is likely to face the chop after the general election following a meeting yesterday between hostile farmers in west Devon and John Major who was told that the Minister of Agriculture's head would be the price for their support.

The minister has been hidden from view by Tory campaign strategists who realised a high- profile for Mr Hogg would be a disaster for the Tories in the election. Mr Major's aides said last night that it was unlikely he would be dismissed from the Cabinet if the Tories were re-elected, but he could be moved.

The Major camp pointed out that Mr Hogg is a strong supporter of Mr Major - his wife, Sarah, was the head of Mr Major's Downing Street policy unit before she was given a peerage by the Prime Minister.

Mr Hogg's head has been demanded repeatedly by the farmers for his handling of the beef crisis and the minister is understood to have offered his resignation, but it was refused by Mr Major who has continued to blame the European partners for refusing to lift the ban on exports of British beef.

Mr Major's support for Mr Hogg has not stopped the minister and his trademark - a brown fedora - becoming a hate figure for the farmers, natural Tory supporters, who have seen their livelihoods threatened with bankruptcy as promises to have the ban lifted were broken.

Mr Major braved a meeting with the farmers at Tavistock cattle market yesterday and in a private session in one of the auction pens is understood to have left the farmers in no doubt that Mr Hogg would be replaced.

Ian Pettyfer, the chairman of Devon National Farmers' Union, said: "I made it clear that a lot of farmers have lost confidence in the ministry team and in one person in particular. I didn't name him, but everybody knew I was talking about Mr Hogg.

"The thought of Hogg being brought back will worry quite a lot of farmers. The Prime Minister made it clear he would start afresh with a new team and adopt a hands-on approach to the agriculture ministry."

John Dawe, chairman of the local branch of the NFU, said: "If we think that the Minister of Agriculture is staying we will not vote Conservative."Farmer Martin Howlett, 36, made a one-man protest about the ban on British beef. He has a herd of 200 cattle and said he was faced with bankruptcy.

"I have always voted Conservative but I have very serious doubts this time. I don't think I will vote in this election. I don't have faith in the way they have handled it," Mr Howlett said.

He would not vote Liberal Democrat, he said, and voting Labour was out of the question, so he is planning to abstain and he warns that many other farmers were also thinking of abstaining.