Eric Pickles doesn’t want to be liked. That much has been clear for some time. Indeed, so long as he is liked by just enough people to remain in power, he seems to positively relish antipathy. It’s a useful trait when you are charged by your chancellor with making cuts to local government the likes of which have never been seen.
But like all authoritarians, Mr Pickles demands respect. It is secretary of state, not Eric, to all who address him and he does not like to be contradicted or indeed interrupted- and woe betide any underling who strays off message. Expecting slavish devotion from those beneath him, Mr Pickles exhibits the same to those above him. Hence he so keenly delivered the cuts required – and then some – to his department in the Spending Review.
No Iain Duncan Smith or Liam Fox-type battles over council funding for Eric Pickles. A child of Thatcher, the secretary of state served up swingeing cuts and seemed to enjoy doing so. Consequently he has been praised by David Cameron as one of the stars of the coalition’s first six months and is feted on Conservative Home and in the right wing press. Liked then by just enough of the right people.
But respected? Mr Cameron loves to call Mr Pickles the ‘big man’ – drawing cheap laughs in what amount to little more than public school boy fat jokes - and references to his weight abound in articles about him in the press. In an odd article in the Telegraph, Paul Goodman constantly referenced his weight. (Try this description: Pickles is a “piggy-eyed, balding, overweight Yorkshireman who makes his way along the corridors of Westminster with the stately waddle of an out-of-condition sumo wrestler”).
But more interestingly, Goodman pointed out his comparative weakness within the coalition. After all, Mr Pickles is not, as Goodman noted, a Cameroon and is rather far from the inner sanctum of the PM’s tight circle. Mr Pickles is needed, Goodman concluded, in so far as he provides a link to the rustic working class north, which is many ways is a world a part from that of Cameron’s elite. If that link is broken – or Mr Pickles becomes a liability - he could easily be cast aside.
With this in mind it is interesting to note Mr Pickles quite awful performance at the London Councils annual summit last Saturday. Invited to give the keynote speech to the now Labour-controlled London Councils Mr Pickles was horribly off key. Some would say the secretary of state was always going to be on a hiding to nothing, speaking to a hostile audience of Labour councillors, yet the way he approached the task showed an extraordinary incapacity - or indeed unwillingness -to strike the right note and it all turned out rather discordant as a consequence.
There were a lot of things that the secretary of state could have talked about at the conference: he could have put some flesh on the bones of the government’s thinking on the new devolution settlement between government, the mayor and the London boroughs; he could have talked about plans in the capital for Local Enterprise Partnerships; he could even have tried to reach out to his audience, yes the cuts will be tough, but we will be with you …
Fat chance. Instead, Mr Pickles launched into an attack on Hackney LBC’s record in using temporary staff, which he said had led to a nameless private sector company profiting unduly. The diatribe was of course aimed at Jules Pipe, the Labour mayor of Hackney and chair of London Councils, who had opened the morning outlining how his council have calculated, using the figures in the CSR, that their cuts next year will be 15-20%, rather than the 7.2% Mr Pickles has said they would be.
There had, it turns out, been an exchange of letters between the two in the previous week and it seems Mr Pickles had come to the event in combative mood. It was a “fiction”, he said that the cuts could be that deep and Mr Pipe would be better off focusing on reducing his bills for temporary staff than concocting entries to the Booker Prize.
It was an odd beginning and ill judged. As Mr Pipe later pointed out, in a frosty exchange between the two on the stage, Hackney has achieved the third greatest efficiency savings of any council in the last three years and has had its council tax frozen for five years. “I need no lectures from you on efficiency,” Mr Pipe told Mr Pickles, as the secretary of state spoke over him.
In fact, with Mr Pipe remaining cool and collected - and remaining diplomatic - and Mr Pickles becoming increasingly angry and rattled (at one point he said he had “no patience for this hypocrisy I’ve heard this afternoon’ - it was not yet 11 AM) it wasn’t immediately clear who was the secretary of state and who was, supposededly, the overly-partisan directly elected mayor.
Having attacked Mr Pipe in his opening Mr Pickles went on with his well-worn schtick about handing down power to local authorities. But in this case the audience weren’t buying it. What is the point of power without budgets, was the general mood.
Then the secretary of state launched into the government’s now familiar defence of the cuts to housing benefit – that too many recipients were living it up in flash homes at tax payers expense. It’s a good line for the Daily Mail et al, but not for a congregation of councillors, who know very well the truth of housing benefit: that it is overwhelmingly used in small amounts to top up the income of low paid workers so that they can remain in their decidedly ordinary homes in central London - and the councillors weren’t shy of telling Mr Pickles this.
The secretary of state first tried to make a joke of the heckling, passing the discontent off as that of Quakers. But he soon broke from his speech and admonished the crowd. “You should be ashamed”, he said angrily, telling Labour councillors that Labour, if elected, would have done exactly the same thing as it was in their manifesto. (Not quite true, as every Labour councillor at the event would know, their manifesto stated Labour would tackle the problem of housing benefit, but it did not set out the particulars of how – nor did the Tories - and there are alternatives to the government’s plans).
It wasn’t quite what one expects of a secretary of state, and the occasion quickly descended into something resembling a political hustings, with Mr Pickles in oppositional mode – the one he seems to favour most (and which he has yet to break out of) - decrying the councillors as “hysterical”. “Grow up, stop being so hysterical, stop using the poor as a battering ram and get on with delivering better housing,” he said.
It all become rather uncomfortable, acrimonious and, ultimately, rather pointless.
“You’re contemptuous”, councillors cried.
“You’re contemptuous”, Mr Pickles replied.
You get the drift.
Nobody learnt anything and in the end all that was achieved was that the already wide gulf between Labour-run councils and the government’s local government team widened further. No loss, Mr Pickles might say. They’re not the ones who I need to like me.
This may be true for now. But perhaps Mr Pickles would be wise to be more diplomatic - not to mention that a little diplomacy would become his now elevated stature. If the council elections produce further swings to Labour as many expect next May – when the cuts will be starting to hit home - Mr Pickles may find he is challenged by many more Labour councils, not just in London but in many of England’s cities.
And it could be that he finds the gulf of mutual contempt he now seems to relish so wide that it can no longer be bridged. If that is the case, those who he needs to like him may decide he has become a liability- unable to do the important work of reaching out to councils and electorates turned against the coalition’s cuts - and cast him aside. Afterall, following shock, awe and destruction there necessarily comes rapprochement and rebuilding . Mr Pickles has yet to show he’s a secretary of state capable of that job.