A Hogg at large in a china shop full of terracotta soldiers

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Indy Politics
Like the terracotta army of Xian the stolid sons of Ulster sat and listened with inscrutable expressions on their faces - each one slightly different, yet somehow the same - as Government and Opposition courted their vital votes. Could they be persuaded to set in train the chain of circumstances that might lead to the fall of the Government?

It was Gavin Strang's job to try. The Shadow Agriculture Secretary has - until now - violated the usual politician's principle of making a little knowledge go a long way. The son of a tenant farmer, an animal geneticist and a PhD in something complicated and scientific, Strang knows a great deal more about agriculture than he appears to. With his throaty vowels and metallic, nervous "eh's", the lugubrious Scot reminds me of one of those Scottish soccer stars of the Seventies, who has been making an unreliable career for himself as a manager in the lower reaches of League football. He is always about to explain - painfully - why injury and ill-luck have disrupted his brilliant plans.

Nevertheless he intoned his litany of criticism of the Government's handling of the BSE crisis relentlessly and effectively. With the help of the Speaker, he banished hecklers like Jacques "buzz-saw" Arnold (one of those Tories who has convinced themselves that BSE was imported from a Soviet research lab by Harriet Harman, supervised by one of the villains from The X-Files).

Chaperoned by John Prescott (whose role was to tell interrupting Tories either to "shuddup" or to "siddown"), Mr Strang, when it came to the point, "made no apology for mentioning Northern Ireland".

In Ulster the cattle, he implied, had shiny horns and lustrous hides and unspongy brains - and should receive special treatment, but not too special. The terracotta army listened, nodded slightly, smiled, but gave no sign.

It was time for Hogg. The motion was, he said, "a political stunt", and itself undermined confidence in British beef, Labour's record was "disgraceful", but - be happy - for the Government had "created the circumstances in which the British beef industry can face the future with growing confidence".

Slumped forward over the dispatch box (indeed, at one point appearing to mount it in true agricultural fashion), Hogg did mention the word "apology" once; it was in the phrase "I make no apology".

The speech was not going down well, the Tory benches were getting nervous; the Prime Minister (who had emerged at the very moment when Mr Hogg stood up) sat beside his beleaguered minister, looking on with that Delphic mini-smile on his unusual lips; the one that always seems to say "oh, shit!"

It was when the first of three Unionist interventions took place that Mr Major's role became clearer. Would the Secretary of State intervene with Brussels specifically on behalf of the certified herds of Northern Ireland, asked Roy Beggs (Antrim East). Mr Major pulled his nose, and as he did so whispered something under his hand to Mr Hogg. Mr Hogg appeared not to hear, and reassured the terracotta man in very general terms. So the Unionist leader David Trimble (Upper Bann) tried again. Once more Hogg replied in easy generalities. Finally Ian Paisley put it in his direct fashion. Would the minister be urging that Northern Ireland's wonderful cattle be given special treatment?

Mr Major nodded vigorously and muttered something. Was it "just say `yes' for Chrissake, Douglas"? If so, Douglas' passionate relationship with the dispatch box was distracting him. Or perhaps he didn't recognise the Prime Minister. Whatever it was, he simply repeated what he'd said before - a loose Hogg in a China shop.