By Paul Goodman
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Eric Pickles isn't afraid to pick on people of his own size – in political terms, that is. I cite as evidence his long-rolling row with his Cabinet colleague Caroline Spelman over waste collection, and what the Communities Secretary has splendidly labelled the right of every Englishman and women to have the remnants of their chicken tikka masala collected weekly.
But he may have gone a bit too far yesterday. Today's Daily Mail reports a clash with the Treasury.
"Union leaders were furious after Mr Pickles allegedly inserted new conditions into a carefully-worded deal agreed with the Treasury that would have capped employer contributions to workers’ pensions…The intervention by Mr Pickles infuriated the Treasury, which had earlier declared victory in the year-long dispute. Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander said the letter from Mr Pickles had been ‘withdrawn’ and that a new one would be issued. But Mr Pickles was unrepentant last night. Aides denied the letter had been retracted and said talks were under way to resolve the ‘misunderstanding’."
That's the misunderstanding between Pickles and the unions, that is, not Pickles and Alexander. I love the Pickles-was-unrepentant business and the Yes Minister fandango over whether his letter still applies or not. But the Communities Secretary knows well that one never wins against the Treasury unless one has got the Prime Minister onside, which doesn't seem to be the case here.
I expect that the glitch will be resolved. Three wider points emerge from the wider pensions settlement.
- Francis Maude's plan to divide "moderate" union leaders from "extremist" ones seems to be working, with the PCS out on its own (though this may change).
- Part of the reason for this is the lack of a public groundswell against the Government's deficit reduction plan – or at any rate against the idea that the deficit must shrink. The big strike day of action recently didn't gain momentum. I return in LeftWatch today to the difficulties this is causing Ed Balls.
- The Daily Telegraph returns today to the argument previously put on this site that the deal is a bad one for the taxpayer.
"…in claiming that this would, if agreed, be a “25‑year” settlement, Mr Alexander was guilty of hubris. He described the new pension deal for state employees as “a proper reward for a lifetime’s commitment to serving the public” – yet to get the same reward, a private sector worker would have to pay a third of their salary into their pension pot. This is neither fair nor, in the long term, affordable."