Soames's nose let too many people down

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I Have long cherished one, rare, piece of evidence that John Major has a sense of humour - his appointment, after the last election, of Nicholas "Bunter" Soames as Minister of Food. But that was before I talked to Meirwen Pugh.

Mrs Pugh's farmer husband, William, is one of more than 500 Britons suffering horrifically after using organophosphate (OP) sheep dips. He has depressions, memory loss, eye trouble and painful muscle spasms. Once she was only just able to talk him out of suicide. Soldiers exposed to OP pesticides in the Gulf war report similar symptoms. Last week Mr Soames refused to resign for misleading Parliament on the issue.

The minister has told the Commons that, thanks to his having been Minister of Food before moving to the Defence Ministry, he was "extraordinarily aware of the question of OPs".

In the summer of 1994, Mrs Pugh and the wives of three other stricken farmers went to see Mr Soames when he was Minister of Food to tell him of their husbands' plight. "I came out crying, to tell you the truth," she says. She found him "really quite nasty" with "no feelings for us".

My Conversation with Mrs Pugh followed several days pondering "What is Nicholas Soames for?". The same weighty question seems to have been bothering members of the Commons Defence Select Committee. At the committee's meeting on Wednesday the minister blamed his officials for not telling him the truth about the use of OPs in the Gulf until September last year. Mr Soames is an honourable man, so we'll believe him, but he seems also to be a curiously incurious one. After all, besides being "extraordinarily aware" himself, he is a bosom pal of the Prince of Wales, Britain's most celebrated organic farmer, who questions the use of pesticides almost as much as modern architecture. Doubts about the ministry line have been raised repeatedly in Parliament, by the select committee itself, by medical researchers, veterans and the press. And on Mr Soames's own admission, ministers were first alerted by officials that it might be false in October 1995. But questioning his civil servants' advice, he says, "did not occur to me".

Isn't that what elected politicians are there to do? Shouldn't they, as one committee member put it, develop a "nose" for this sort of thing? Mr Soames retorted he had such "a very good nose" that he could be reincarnated as a bloodhound. ("It certainly wouldn't be a whippet," commented another member.) But even his cousin Winston Churchill wanted to know why questions had not been asked. Peter Viggers, himself a former Tory defence minister, suspected a "cover-up" and added that he was "most anxious that this should not end up with junior people taking the blame".

Fat chance. Seeking a scapegoat far down the chain of command has long superseded the tradition of ministers accepting responsibility. There seems no budging Messrs Howard, Hogg, Soames and their chums except through the bedroom or the ballot box. Come to think of it, has anyone seen the quiff of the secretary of state, Michael Portillo, above the parapet in the skirmishes over Gulf War Syndrome?

Soames's nemesis is a wheelchair-bound grandmother, working at her kitchen table in a converted Cornish farmhouse (with a cockerel that stands on the windowsill and crows during her phonecalls). Liz Sigmund, who left school at 16, has been researching, and campaigning on the effects of OPs since the early 1960s.

She was not taken seriously for decades because of her lack of qualifications (and, perhaps, her sex). She is just one of a long line of green Miss Marples who have proved experts wrong over asbestos, water, and gender- bender chemicals, as well as pesticides.

As it happens, Labour's defence spokesman, David Clark, has a good record on Gulf War Syndrome, and helped form the veterans' association. If he gets the job in a few weeks, the drive to blame civil servants could backfire: they may be only too ready to tell him of anything present ministers might have to hide.

This reminds me of the result of a Ministry of Defence leak inquiry in the late 1970s. I was told it ended abruptly when a little man walked into the room of a top official, who had been particularly vocal in condemning the leak, with a bugged tape-recording of the official's own voice spilling the beans.