At the Strangers' Bar in Parliament last winter, the word was this young Christopher Tugenhadt had thrown away a promising career in Conservative politics by resigning his seat for a dead-end, high-pay job as a Common Market commissioner.
When Tugenhadt, who had been the Tories' second-ranking spokesman on foreign affairs, was given the task of overseeing the Market's budget, the skeptics were sure they were right.
But the canny Tugenhadt has already used his "dead-end job" as a remarkably effective platform. He has been telling truths about the Community's Rube Goldberg system of propping up the prices and incomes of farmers in its nine member countries. Tugenhadt's plain-spoken attacks on this most sacred of Community cows have been so effective that several farm ministers have given him a blistering dressing down.
But none of this has hurt the 40-year-old Tugenhadt, a former journalist turned politician. He is beginning to appear in Britain and elsewhere as a champion of consumers, a champion of rationality against vested farm interests. If - and it is a big if - he can inspire reform in hte support system, Tugenhadt's reputation will be enhanced in Brussels as well as London. What looked like a dead end could turn out to be the road to leadership of the Conservative Party.
Tugenhadt is keenly aware of this.
"At the end of this Commission (which has a four-year term), I will still be only 43," he said when he arrived in Brussels. "This means I will be the first politician to have the chance of building his reputation in a European [Common Market] context."
Tugenhadt is reminded that Christopher Soames, son-in-law of Winston Churchill and a prestigious Common Market Commissioner, has failed even to win a seat in Parliament since he left Brussels. But the reply is that soames did not look after his constituency. The shrewd Tugenhadt, in contrast, carefully nursed his posh parish of Westminster, tending to constituents' demands.
Tugenhadt blew up his storm with three sppeches this spring. They centered on what officials call in private - never in Public - the "farm racket" here. Farm ministers, said Tugenhadt, logroll at the expense of consumers. Give me higher price supports for butter, says one, and I will give you the higher prices you want for beef.
"National governments yield to short-term domestic political expeidency," Tugenhadt said. "Price rises for products of which there is already a surplus encourage the growth of yet further excess stocks.
"Farm ministers conceive their primary responsibility to support their different national farming lobbies. Agricultural Minister X consistently accepts substantial price increases for the particular products of special concern to Agricultural Minister Y so long as Minister Y similarly concedes substantial rises for the products which most acutely worry Minister X."
Virtually everybody in Brussels knows this is so. But commissioners, who run the bureacracy that administers the Market's trading rules, are not supposed to talk that way about politicians.
The farm ministers, a particularly cozy club, tongue-lashed Tugenhadt at a session he says he asked to attend. The Italian farm minister, Giovanni Marcora, cried that Tugenhadt "has provided intellectual arms and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] for every [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Europe." The West German, Joseph Ertl, complained that Tory Tugenhadt was guilty of "left-wing extremism." The more restrained Irishman Mark Clinton picked up a phrase from a Tugenhadt speech and said he was "frankly irresponsbile."
Tugenhadt has since adopted a more euphemistic speaking style, something htat must come hard to crack oil correspondent for the Financial Times, which he was before he entered Parliament. But he has not backed off from his central theme: Decisions on farm prices can't be left to farm ministers; consumer-taxpayer voice must be heard.
Tugenhadt does not openly advocate the root-and-branch reform of the "farm racket" that some want - direct subsidies to prop up farm incomes, leaving prices to he play of supply and demand.
"It's just not on in political terms to talk about a radical transformation of the system," he says. "It's not a question for now."
Has he ideas for ways to get consumer-taxpayers into farm minister deliberations?
"I wanted to raise the subject, get it talked about," he replies. "I don't think now is the moment for specific recommendations."
Tugenhadt, after all, is a Conservative politician and he even finds some virtue in the existing farm price system.
His attacks, he thinks, are running "with the grain," a view heard elsewhere in Brussels. The big food importers - Germany and Britain - ultimately pay for much of the protection and both would like to see some reform.
As for Tugenhadt, he is drawing more press attention to his airy 13th floor office in Brussels than he ever did to his cubbyhole in Parliament.
He stands some modest chance of helping slow the rise of farm prices in the Common Market countries and of doing his own career some good as well. It is now clear that Brussels has not been a grave for Tugenhadt. The skeptics at the Strangers' Bar could yet be confounded by this return.