Profile: Farm fresh but on the firm side: Gill Shephard, agriculture minister on the up

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'GILL WAS livid when the Germans announced their ban on UK beef imports on Tuesday,' according to one of her senior civil servants. 'She felt they were not playing by the rules.' The Minister of Agriculture, Gillian Shephard, had reason to be riled. The German ban - to be imposed from the end of the year as a result of the alleged danger of 'mad cow disease' - came within two days of the failure of the Corfu summit. It was widely seen as retaliation for John Major's obstructiveness there.

The agriculture minister's anger showed in the strength of her reprimand - although her announcement two days later of British restrictions on the use of calf sweetbreads and intestines did rather undermine her righteous stance. She accused the Germans of 'sabre rattling' and 'blatant illegality' and called on them to 'step back from the brink'. All this from a Europhile who is sometimes accused of being too nice for the rough and tumble of politics.

Moreover, the letter she fired off to the Commission sounded as if Mrs Shephard were a schoolmistress and the agriculture commissioner a prefect who had failed to live up to expectations. 'You have left Germany in no doubt about the legal consequences of a unilateral ban of this kind,' she told the commissioner, Rene Steichen. 'I now expect you to take the necessary legal action immediately.'

But then Gill (nobody calls her Gillian) Shephard was for a number of years a schoolmistress, specialising in modern languages, before becoming a careers officer, a senior education officer and a school inspector in her native Norfolk. Her German is good enough to tear a strip off her opposite number in Bonn in his own tongue if necessary, while her French is near perfect.

'She is a lot tougher than she looks, and she really does feel affronted when people do not behave as she thinks they should,' according to one of her civil servants. 'She is considerate, informal, has a wicked sense of humour and is a bit of a flirt. But she expects you to have done your homework and woe betide you if you haven't'

So Mrs Shephard's schoolmarm anger was genuine. But it was also carefully calculated, and cleared in detail with No 10. Although overshadowed in public terms by Virginia Bottomley, Mrs Shephard is a great buddy of the Prime Minister, closer to him than is the higher profile Secretary of State for Health. 'In spite of all the Spitting Image jokes about John Major and Miss Whiplash, the Prime Minister is more at ease with Gill Shephard, with her sensible shoes, suits from Marks & Spencer, and her interest in gardening, than he is with the imperious Virginia,' says the civil servant. For her part, Mrs Shephard is always careful to ensure that she has her friend and protector on side.

Gill Shephard spotted Mr Major's potential early and was a key member of the team that organised his leadership campaign. He moved fast to promote her, first to Minister of State at the Treasury, then Employment Secretary and, after the 1992 election, to Agriculture. Not bad going for somebody who entered the House in 1987, as Member for Norfolk South West.

Her predecessors, John Gummer and Edwina Currie, used to insist that they were titled Ministers of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food - an indication of their commitment to the consumer rather than the producer. Mrs Shephard is more inclined to see herself in traditional mould as the farmers' friend, or at least as the friend of the rural economy. (Look at the pressure animal rights groups had to exert last month before Mrs Shephard switched her position and demanded a more humane European directive on the transportation of livestock.) But there is an element of political calculation involved, too. This shift in emphasis involves an attempt to reassure restive pro-Tory farmers who felt marginalised during the Eighties.

With a cabinet reshuffle approaching, friends recall the rapidity with which the new Prime Minister appointed her deputy chair of the party, and remind you that she was the only person other than cabinet ministers on the platform when the 1992 election manifesto was launched. Such signals matter. The expectation is that Mrs Shephard will move on and up the cabinet ladder.

So what sort of person is Gillian Patricia Shephard? The answer, to a unique extent, is that she is a product of her patch, the isolated and often bleak, but closely-knit farming community on the north Norfolk coast, where she was born in January 1940. Except for her time at Oxford and a brief period teaching in Bedford, she has always lived in the county.

On Wednesday, at the Norfolk Show in Norwich, Mrs Shephard moved among local farmers, farm managers and farm labourers, many of whom she had known since childhood. She had attended the village primary school in Knapton, 15 miles away, with some of them. 'She's a good ol' girl,' said one farmworker, who greeted her. 'She's very straight and she doesn't put on the style.' No higher praise in that part of the world.

Mrs Shephard prides herself on her ability to judge horseflesh and cattle. Her father, Reginald Watts, is described as having been a horse trader or a livestock dealer. In Knapton and the villages around, they use the vernacular: 'He were a dickie dealer,' says an elderly farmer.

A dickie is local slang for a donkey, and a dickie dealer is a mildly disparaging term for somebody who buys and sells cattle and horses. 'In today's terms you could think of him as an established, rather up-market, second- hand car dealer,' said another farmer. Being a dickie dealer was not as grand as being a farmer (Mr Watts owned no more than 25 acres), but it was a job that required integrity, enterprise and determination, as well as an ability to win friends and influence people. Gill, an only child, seems to have inherited this useful mix of attributes.

According to a fellow pupil at Knapton village primary school in the Forties, 'she was the bright one'. From there Gill moved on to the North Walsham High School for Girls, a rather tight-laced establishment in the local market town. There she is remembered as the village girl who would dump her bike at the kerbside after school and settle down to chat with farm labourers' sons from the local secondary modern.

In 1958 Gill Shephard went up to St Hilda's College, Oxford, where she sang in the Bach choir, read Modern Languages and was vivaed for a First but narrowly missed it. For the next decade hers was an uneventful, though successful, provincial life.

After Oxford, she taught briefly in Bedford, before returning to Norfolk. In 1975 she married Tom Shephard, a widowed headmaster with two sons. One is now an army officer, the other an econometrician at Nuffield College, Oxford; Gill and Tom have no children of their own. She joined her husband in King's Lynn and, as soon as possible, they bought a house in her home village, Knapton.

Once settled there, she entered politics and rose rapidly through the Tory ranks of the county council. She is remembered for her energy, her brisk efficiency and her pragmatic approach. As a councillor she chaired the education and social services committees as well as presiding over the West Norfolk and Wisbech Health Authority.

It was all fairly predictable. But then, in August 1986, her constituency party was about to select a new parliamentary candidate. Tory Central Office wanted to foist an Oxford barrister (male) on the local party. Mrs Shephard, who was looking for a seat, involved herself in the rebellion and ended up as the candidate, an episode which causes her some amusement. As she said to friends subsequently, there was one thing the local party wanted less than an outsider as their MP, and that was a woman.

Those who believe that Gill Shephard really is a tougher political fighter than she looks cite her bureaucratic empire building at Employment and Agriculture. In the former post she persuaded the Prime Minister to give her overall responsibility for women's matters, to the anger of other ministers and their departmental civil servants. And she made a bid to take over vocational training from the Department of Education.

At Agriculture she came into conflict with John Gummer, then at Environment, and other ministers because she hoped to expand her department to embrace the entire rural economy and environment. She knows that farming involves only 13 per cent of the rural population and is interested in road and rail provision, the fate of rural post offices, low-cost housing and the relaxation of planning restrictions to encourage small industries.

So where next might John Major place the Cabinet's other woman? Education is the obvious answer, given Mrs Shephard's background - and John Patten's likely departure. Equally, if the Home Office were to fall vacant, she could find herself the first woman Home Secretary. And were Michael Heseltine to be prevailed upon to become party chairman, she might just be slipped into Trade and Industry. Otherwise, there is always the party chairmanship going begging. Eat your heart out, Virginia.