The late Tory MP Alan Clark recalled in his diaries how civil servants might leave their minister stranded to answer tricky questions without leaping to their aid - a gentle reminder of who was really in charge.
Kim Howells, the new Higher Education Minister, clearly thought he was suffering a Clark attack during his speech at a Universities UK conference last week. Midway through his speech, Dr Howells stopped and asked if he could have a glass of water. "I'll look for the second half of my speech while I'm at it," he said, taking a sip, while urgently looking for a bundle of papers.
His aides might be happier if he were more prone to being stuck for words.
Introduced as the Culture Minister who, in 2002, dismissed the Turner Prize entries as "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit", Dr Howells told the conference: "Actually I like modern art. It was just that that show was crap."