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We ensured Pickles retained his job

Tony Travers
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Communities department ministers are probably seen by No 10 as among the most successful in government

The survival of Eric Pickles and (indeed the promotion of) Brandon Lewis at the Department for Communities & Local Government in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle tells us much about the fitness-for-purpose of these ministers in this particular department at this time.

Despite a massive game of musical chairs involving the foreign secretary, defence secretary, chief whip, leader of the house and education secretary – the communities secretary has stayed on. 

More than that, Mr Pickles is now part of the team that David Cameron sees as a bridge to what he hopes will be a Conservative government after next year’s general election.

If the Tories win, or form a minority government, it seems likely that promotion will lie ahead for both the senior communities department ministers. Nick Boles, the former planning minister, has also gone on to higher things.

However much councils may not want to hear it, the ministerial team at DCLG is probably seen by No 10 as one of the most successful in the government. Its members have overseen massive cuts to local authorities spending while public satisfaction with them has increased. The efficiency and effectiveness of councils has, very directly, contributed to this outcome. Who says irony is dead?

At the weekend, Ed Miliband used a speech to his party to make clear there would be no extra money if Labour won the coming election. He stated: “We will get the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next Parliament and we will deliver a surplus on the current budget.” 

A surplus on the “current budget” is slightly looser than George Osborne’s stance – the chancellor wants to run a surplus on the whole budget, including capital. On the other hand, bringing down the national debt would be a mammoth challenge.

Were Labour to win, their communities secretary would face exactly the same challenge to reduce council spending as Eric Pickles has since 2010. The difference would be that whoever takes over DCLG would be taking council spending down from 15-20% below its 2010 level to perhaps 30-35% below. Ministers in the next government will have an even more difficult job than the current ones.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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