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Election `97: The clue is in the red boxes

It is the red box surrender. The Independent can reveal that in an astonishing outbreak of defeatism no less than six Conservative Cabinet ministers have asked for their ministerial boxes to be packed up as souvenirs - something only done when ministers leave office.

By tradition, departing ministers are allowed to take away one of these potent symbols of power to remind them of them of when they were lions of the front benches. Calling them in indicates a certain lack of confidence that John Major would form the next government.

Two of the six can pay the pounds 50 fee and take away their boxes with their heads held high. They had both indicated they do not seek to serve in government again. One of them is Sir Patrick Mayhew.

But the other four have given no indication that they want to go. Informed sources say that all four would have had high hopes of continuing as ministers if the Tories got back in. The boxes, which cost pounds 795 each new, have to have their locks modified before the departing minister can take them.

The various government departments pass on the names to the manufacturers, Barrow and Hepburn, in preparation for the changeover.

A Whitehall source said: "The list which has arrived at the makers makes very interesting reading. Two of them make sense, because both the men said they were going.

"But others have obviously given up all hopes of office in the near future - the Tories would not win, or they would lose their seats."

Barrow and Hepburn have been making the red boxes for Whitehall since the l920s and are known for their discretion. However, the list passes through several hands before getting to them.