Yesterday on the radio, Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, struggled to answer questions about whether he had yet offered to resign but did admit that if asked to do so by the Prime Minister he would, with "such grace as I can muster".
Mr Hogg has different hats to suit the weather. For fine weather, he has a Panama; for more dismal (bovine spongiform encephalopathy-ridden days) he wears a stylish fedora; then for chillier weather he switches to a Russian fur hat.
Ignoring for the moment his less-than-surefooted handling of the BSE crisis, the real sign that Mr Hogg is on his way out of the Cabinet is that he has been advised by the party's media advisers that any kind of headgear is regarded as "eccentric" these days. Perhaps it might be better, they say, if he left the titfer at home, at least while cameras were around.
Which is a perfect illustration of the fact that he is really a politician of a different age. Born into the purple of the Conservative Party, heir to the disclaimed viscountcy of his father, Lord Hailsham, he married into it too.
Baroness Hogg, as she now is, may be the explanation for why Douglas has lasted so long. John Major is still very fond of Sarah Hogg, head of his Downing Street Policy Unit until last year.
She is a toff too, of course, the daughter of John Boyd- Carpenter, a minister in Harold Macmillan's government. Earlier this year she became only the second female Fellow of Douglas's old school, as a member of the governing body of Eton.
But she is a jolly and lively toff, and a former journalist, whereas he is regarded as abrasive by civil servants and is seriously un-media- friendly. He has never courted journalists, despite being married to one, and stands out as an aristocrat in a classless government.
Thus he sounded decent and honourable - but hopelessly out of his depth - when confronted with the suggestion that the Prime Minister had no confidence in him.
"Put it like this: I am not by instinct a quitter," he told John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday. "This is a difficult and interesting job. I like doing it and I am very happy to go on doing it," he said, sounding miserable.
"But it's equally true that all ministers' jobs are at the disposal of the Prime Minister and if he feels that somebody else will do it better, then I will accept his decision with such grace as I can muster."
John Humphrys at once asked if he had offered to resign.
"Ah, that's another matter, isn't it?" Mr Hogg said.
But, pressed further, he seemed to admit that he had volunteered to go if Mr Major asked him: "What I said to you is broadly what I've said to everybody else."
His position in the Cabinet has never been secure. He was the second choice for the agriculture job last year, when David Maclean, a Minister of State at the Home Office, turned it down.
Normally, the Ministry of Agriculture does not matter much in politics. But then came the BSE crisis - and Mr Hogg was immediately thrown into a turf war with Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health. It was Mr Dorrell - who did not know whether it was safe for children to eat beef - who really started the scare, while Mr Hogg mounted a robust defence of the interests of the main clients of his department, farmers. Only last night the Government took the fight to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
However, it was Mr Hogg's leaden touch which upset the early crisis management effort - he raised the possibility of the mass slaughter of older cattle in a Sunday television interview before the Government had received the scientists' second opinion.
"No, I don't think I've been sidelined," he told Mr Hum-phrys yesterday, referring to the three-person "war cabinet" (Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and him) and the role of the Public Service minister, Roger Freeman, in enforcing anti-BSE measures.
But had he mishandled the talks in Brussels? No, he said, but then added: "If you ask whether in the last three months or so there are things we could have done differently, I'm sure that the answer is yes."
Which leaves the Prime Minister with a dilemma. Douglas Hogg is clearly an honest man, and not obviously incompetent. Part of his trouble is his ministry, which has been consistently slow to respond to BSE - as Labour agriculture spokesmen can rightly confirm. But Labour smells blood and sees the chance for another scalp-hunt. Mr Major remained loyal to his former Chancellor Norman Lamont - who ran his leadership campaign in 1990 - far longer than was politically wise. He stood by David Mellor, then Secretary of State for National Heritage, until maximum damage had been done.
But now we are in a pre- election phase and more ruthless considerations must prevail. Mr Hogg is dangerously isolated, under siege not just from the opposition but from the rampant Euro-sceptic right. An unobtrusive pro-European, he is blamed by the Union Jack tendency for letting the foreigners push Britain around.
Perhaps the key figure in the drama, as it unfolds over coming weeks, is Sarah Hogg. After all, she buys the hats.Reuse content