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Conservative Intelligence

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Eric Pickles MP

Department: Communities and Local Government

Position: Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 2010

Last Updated: Friday, August 20th, 2010

Who’s the Cabinet’s most successful Minister to date? The answer’s perhaps surprising – because the man who can best lay claim to the title isn’t one of the beautiful people. Bald, slow-speaking and (not to put too fine a point on it) overweight, he hails from the council estates of West Yorkshire rather than the wine bars of Notting Hill, and walks with the bulky waddle of an out-of-condition sumo wrestler.

Yet in less than three months into the job, Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, has announced an end to regional housebuilding targets, home insurance packs, comprehensive area assessments, the Standards Board, the proposed Norwich Unitary authority, the local government office for London, bin taxes and – most recently – the Audit Commission. Pickles is emerging as a real force in the Coalition Government, and a man to watch.

But the success of this polar opposite of the sort of smooth, southern-based, privately-educated politician that tends to flourish in the Conservative Party is less astounding than it seems. Pickles is an old pro who’s been around for years. Raised in a working class home and weaned on the works of Marx and Trotsky – his great-grandfather was a founder of the Independent Labour Party – he joined the Tories in protest when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.

He rose rapidly in the Young Conservatives, becoming its National Chairman during the early 1980s. By that time, he’d already been elected to Bradford Council: the start of his long career in an association with local government. In 1988, he became the Council’s leader, and drove through a programme of radical Thatcherite reform, cutting its budget, reducing the workforce by a third and privatising services.

In 1992, he was elected to the Commons for the first time, representing the Brentwood seat in Essex that he’s held ever since. Soon after his arrival, he was made a Party Vice-Chairman with responsibility for local government – a portent of what was to come. During the long years of opposition, post 1997, he served as a front bench spokesman on social security, transport and, inevitably, local government.

His promotion from that last post to the Shadow Cabinet by David Cameron in 2007 – to cover the whole Communities and Local Government brief – therefore had a certain logic to it. Pickles’ immersion in local government has given him a profound understanding of Conservative-held councils, and the local Conservative Associations which often provide them with councillors and candidates. This also explains his promotion to Party Chairman in 2009.

Pickles’ appointment was part of a broader move to give the Shadow Cabinet a tougher, more populist edge. There was persistent gossip during his tenure of tensions between Cameron’s office and Pickles, and suggestions that he unjustifiably attempted to claim credit for a Commons by-election triumph in Crewe and Nantwich. And he had a bruising experience during the expenses scandal on the BBC’s Question Time programme, being heckled by vociferous members of the audience.

But these rumours of a breach with the new Prime Minister was silenced, post-election, when Pickles returned to the communities’ brief. For all his early success, he faces fearsome challenges: an autumn in which his departmental budget may be slashed by over a quarter, and a spring in which local elections may test the very survival of the Coalition. Furthermore, many Tory Councillors are more dependent on their Council allowances than they once were. The effects of the coming cuts will test their patience and loyalty.

Pickles will thus need to save up some potential good news for the coming political year, and console Councils for their losses by giving them further freedoms – thus creating space for the Prime Minister’s “Big Society”, in which local councils, voluntary groups, faith communities, clubs and charities work together to help deliver public services and raise the quality of life. He has the political intelligence to tackle the task: his blunt manner, slow diction and plain speaking disguise an intuitive gift for getting to the heart of a matter.

When he began his Conservative career, he was firmly on the centre-left of the Party, and retains a visceral distaste for racism and prejudice. Over the years, he’s moved tothe centre-right, working with Iain Duncan Smith on welfare before 2001 and voting for David Davis in the 2005 Party leadership election. If his present success continues, Cabinet promotion will surely follow, and it’s just possible to imagine him as a no-nonsense Home Secretary. He has been married to his wife, Irene, since 1976.

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