She had been adjusting to retirement from the national political stage when Margaret Eaton suddenly found herself thrust into the front line of councils’ biggest financial struggle of recent years.
After unexpectedly taking over as Local Government Association chairman (she refuses to be termed ‘chairwoman’) in September, Cllr Eaton faced the ultimate baptism of fire when councils potentially lost nearly£1bn in collapsed Icelandic banks.
Meanwhile, as Britain reels from economic turmoil, Cllr Eaton faces difficulty convincing the political elite that a shift in power from central to local government really should be a priority.
It was the shock resignation of fellow Tory Sir Simon Milton, lured away by Boris Johnson with the offer of a deputy mayoral post after a mere year in the LGA hot seat, that led to Cllr Eaton’s political renaissance. The Bradford City MDC councillor leapt at the opportunity to re-enter the limelight, two months after her three-year stint as Tory LGA group leader had ended.
“I thought I’d retired in July not completely, but from the LGA,” she explains. “I felt as if I’d lost my right arm at that stage.
“Not being involved in all that was going on was not something I was enjoying.”
With the Tories the largest party in local government, it was a ballot of the party’s leaders and group leaders that determined the new LGA chair. Cllr Eaton triumphed, scooping more votes than the other four candidates combined.
Cllr Eaton claims not to have been nervous about living up to the successes of Sir Simon and Lord Bruce-Lockhart “I wouldn’t say I found it daunting. I’d say challenging” and she insists she can bring qualities lacking in the LGA’s two previous Conservative chairmen.
“My gender is different and I’m not from the south-east or London. I bring a different perspective and different experiences to the role.”
Cllr Eaton has over two decades of experience to prepare her for the most senior position in British local government.
The former teacher was first elected to Bradford in 1986. She initially regarded the council as hostile and insular and was advised by one colleague to keep her head down for a few years to avoid being swamped by its ideological struggles.
“There didn’t seem to be very much meeting of minds, but it was stimulating. I don’t think in those early days I got my head totally around the idea that we were delivering something it’s not a debating society!”
But Cllr Eaton already had considerable experience of political debates. She came from a political family where current affairs were discussed around the dinner table and wore her first blue rosette at the tender age of two.
Her father, “a very caring sort of person”, inspired her social conscience. During her childhood she worked with groups supporting refugees fleeing eastern European communism. “I learnt a lot quite early about people’s lives being different from mine. I came out with a very ‘social justice, one nation’ Tory viewpoint.”
But ‘one nation’ Tory values were not at the forefront as one Eric Pickles (Con) became Bradford’s leader, steering the council to the right as the Thatcher revolution reached its peak.
The Tories held the council by one seat, leaving key votes poised on a knife-edge. As Cllr Pickles’ attention switched to Westminster, Cllr Eaton became Tory group leader and then leader.
“When I joined the council I never expected to be leader It wasn’t an ambition,” Cllr Eaton states. “Most people talk about five-year plans and what their next direction is, but I’ve never really worked like that. I’m not somebody who says ‘I’m going to be’ and ‘I’m going to do’ I just like to do my best.”
With the council hung for much of her time at the helm, and no formal coalition in place, Cllr Eaton followed a consensual path. She claims that by persuading other group leaders of the “ripeness of the argument”, all key policies survived. Confidence in the city grew until disaster struck.
Like other northern cities, Bradford saw intense rioting in 2001, damaging ties between different ethnic groups. Suddenly community cohesion was in tatters and developers were poised to pull out.
Action was required. A bid to become European Capital of Culture failed but helped bring communities together; the rehabilitation of rioters was prioritised and the business sector was courted.
Such experiences prepared Cllr Eaton for the challenges of the LGA. Having been elected its chair, her political honeymoon was short-lived before Iceland intervened. The LGA’s performance as the Iceland saga unfolded has not been universally applauded. Some complain councils should have seen earlier the danger facing their investments.
Cllr Eaton cannot understand such carping. “There’s not anything to suggest any recklessness. Local authorities have been encouraged to make money work, spread risk and follow Treasury guidance. If they hadn’t done that, what do people suggest? Put it in a tin box under the leader’s bed?”
The LGA has repeatedly denied launching an inquiry into the affair but it is clear some sort of probe is underway.
“One should always look at and reflect on how you have done things and how you could have done better,” Cllr Eaton says. “That’s what the executive has asked to happen. It will be reported to an executive, looking at the process.”
Dissatisfaction was reported with LGA chief executive Paul Coen’s performance on Radio 4’s Today programme on the Monday after the crisis broke. Many felt the chairman was the best person to be interviewed.
Cllr Eaton explains why Mr Coen faced the tricky interview instead of her: “It was first thing in the morning and I happened to be in Yorkshire. Radio 4 was wishing to do the programme from London. It wasn’t possible unless you helicoptered me down.”
Iceland is not the only item in Cllr Eaton’s in-tray. Securing council empowerment at a time of economic downturn looms large.
She expresses only lukewarm enthusiasm about possible council involvement in the chancellor’s Keynesian bid to spend Britain’s way out of the downturn: “That’s not necessarily the only solution, but it might be the only show in town.”
Asked about the prospects of further devolution of power before the general election, Cllr Eaton sounds far from upbeat: “As governments get more anxious towards elections, they get remarkably centralist.”
Citing her dismay at plans for direct election to police authorities, bypassing councillors, she states: “It’s these kinds of tensions we’ll have to do battle on.” But such policing innovations are not merely proposed by the government the Tories have their own plans for directly elected police commissioners.
The party is about to release its own localism green paper which, many fear, will be strong on decentralising rhetoric but will not necessarily help empower councils. One driving force behind the document is none other than Cllr Eaton’s old Bradford colleague, shadow communities secretary, Eric Pickles.
Cllr Eaton has sat on the party’s wellbeing group that fed into the paper and says she has discussed its possible contents with Mr Pickles. “We’ll have general conversions, not in the formal sense of sitting down, but in very informal settings.”
When asked about David Cameron’s speaking of the language of localism, Cllr Eaton interjects: “but they all do, don’t they?”
She continues: “There might be the odd thing we’d disagree about, like elected police commissioners. We have registered that we don’t think that’s the most localist view.”
On Mr Cameron’s enthusiasm for elected mayors, Cllr Eaton expresses hope but not certainty that the party leader will not impose them on councils: “I’m sure that they will not be something that is dictated.”
In the maximum three-year term her party allows its LGA chairs, Cllr Eaton says she hopes to help commit the government, of whatever colour, to a localist agenda, offering councils freedoms and flexibilities. She knows she has much work to do.
Margaret Eaton's life in politics
2008 Chairman, LGA
2005-08 Leader, LGA Conservative group
2000-06 Leader, Bradford City MDC
1995-2000 Conservative group leader, Bradford
1986 Elected to Bradford
1984 Co-opted onto Bradford education committee
1970 Joins Conservative Party