Knowing when to use the cattle prod

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These days, Conservative ministers resign on matters of principle only when the cows come home. So there isn't much risk of the Minister of Agriculture, William Waldegrave, having to leave office over his cows going abroad.

But the pressure on Mr Waldegrave over the export of calves from his family farm to the European version of the veal market that his department banned in Britain - combined with the continuing discomfort of the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, over jail break-outs - focuses attention again on the question of ministerial responsibility.

It is a common complaint that recent Conservative cabinets have devalued the concept of honour and responsibility in politics. This may very well be true of Mr Howard, to whom we will come; but the troubles of Mr Waldegrave seem to me to touch on anotherissue: that journalists and voters are at risk of devaluing the concept of ministerial resignation.

Recent Conservative ministers have, it is true, often brought to mind a song by the American satirist Tom Lehrer about the rocket scientist, Werner von Braun, who developed weapons for the Germans during the Second World War and for the Americans after it. In Lehrer's ditty, he defends himself against charges of opportunism: "Once a rocket goes up, who cares where it comes down?/That's not my department/Says Werner Von Braun."

This song catches perfectly the tone of Michael Howard with regard to prisoners and, some would say, of William Waldegrave in reference to his cows. The Minister of Agriculture's defence during the weekend's "Farmgate" row was, precisely, that, once the cattle went up (to market), it was indeed not his department to know where they came down. In a period when the venality and cynicism of politicians is taken for granted, this appears to be perfect example of hypocrisy: a minister who condemns inhumane veal farming turns out to be the financial beneficiary of such methods. Pressed on the matter, he says that he didn't personally know the destination of each animal. This makes us laugh even more.

The problem is that it was a specific requirement of such rules of ministerial probity as we possess that Mr Waldegrave should not know the destination of his cattle. He was required to resign as a director of the family farms because of the risk of a conflict of interest, and did so. If he had telephoned the farm last week and said something along the lines of "with all this veal calf stuff going on, tell old Adam Lambsbreath to make doubly sure none of our stock are ending up pan-fried in Paris", thenhe would have committed an actual resignation offence by taking his cows out of the bovine equivalent of a blind trust in which they are held.

This is not a defence of raising calves in crates. I don't eat veal and have much sympathy with the protesters at Shoreham docks, but the minister's acreage is the wrong target. The double standard of which the Waldegrave farm is guilty is only that which is endemic in British agriculture. It is morally reprehensible that a farming method banned in this country should be inflicted on its livestock when exported, but it is legal. The Waldegrave farm has merely been following the policy of the agricultureministry: the opposite, actually, of hypocrisy.

The one serious matter of political practice raised by "Farmgate" concerns the background of ministerial appointees. It has generally been regarded as appropriate in Britain that the minister of Agriculture should be a farmer. For this reason, Waldegrave, though a gentleman practitoner, seemed a more apt choice than his predecessor, John Gummer, whose nostrils were less familiar with manure.

But this belief is the mistaken product of the view that the job of the Min of Ag is to pander to the vested interests of the farming lobby. In fact, the department is supposed to mediate between the needs and rights of farmer and shopper, chef and Shoreham placard-waver. It is unfortunate, in the present controversy, that the minister responsible should be connected with a farm at all, but this is the fault of political culture not himself.

Journalists and voters also need to be more discriminating about invoking the possibility of resignation. Animal rights protestors who call on Waldegrave to fall on his spade are merely indulging in a polemical ritual that should not become the basis forserious media discussion of the minister's tenure. Last week, Radio 4 bulletins made much of a call from the wacky, Tory backbencher Lady Olga Maitland for the resignation of the prison supremo, Derek Lewis. Before becoming news, such sugge stions should surely be concerted, widespread and authoritative. Otherwise, endless easy precedents of ministers not resigning under pressure are provided for those who really ought to go.

Which brings us to the Home Secretary. If England had footballers who could pass the ball like Michael Howard can pass the buck, we would have won the World Cup. Alternating between shameless draconian rhetoric at party conference, and smug explanation on the airwaves that the occurrence of the exact opposite of these promises is nothing to do with him, he has come to embody a new Conservative doctrine of power without responsibility. His not-me-guv stance has become such a national joke that, when the BBC newsreader Michael Buerk came to the line on his autocue the other night,"The Home Secretary said he would not be resigning", he gave it the intonation of a catch-phrase or running gag.

Mr Howard's delicate differentiation between "operational" and "policy" matters will surely turn out to be his major contribution to the criminal justice system. Picture the scene at the Old Bailey, as the trial of some criminal mastermind proceeds. Fixing thejury with his most winning stare, defence counsel says: "M'lud, my client does not deny that he may have received some of the proceeds of the robbery with which he is charged. However, he did not himself go out on the night in question with a sawn- off shotgun. It is his contention that he was involved in the `policy' matters of the job in question, but not - absolutely not - in `operational' matters."

Recognising a perfect application of the "Howard doctrine" if ever they heard it, the jurors knock 10 years off the sentence. In the next few months, as defence teams become aware of the full implications of Michael Howard's work as a moral philosopher, this revolutionary new concept of responsibility leads to a general reduction in both convictions and sentences. This infuriates the Conservative constituencies to such an extent that there are calls for the Home Secretary's resignation.

He doesn't go, though, because his official "policy" remains long sentences, although, at an "operational" level, his novel new demarcation of blame lets the guilty go free. Or, in his case, keep their job.