By Paul Goodman
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In today's Mail on Sunday James Forsyth wonders if Eric Pickles could be the next Chief Whip. For last Wednesday's ConHome Party Conference newspaper Paul Goodman argued that Mr Pickles was under-rated and under-valued. This essay is republished below.
Who is the most successful Cabinet Minister? Polls of party members by ConservativeHome give a twin answer: Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove. But this is unfair to a Tory colleague who comes in a little below them and gets a lot less publicity – outside his own brief, at least. Let us consider the case for their colleague, the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles.
Mr Gove is delivering academies and raising standards, but his reforms will take years to work their way through successive generations of school pupils (and that's assuming that some future government doesn't uproot them). Mr Duncan Smith's aims are noble, but the universal credit is yet to happen, and getting the long-term unemployed into work and keeping them there is a daunting challenge.
Mr Pickles's programme has his own limitations – a future Labour Government could unpick his work, no less than it could unwind Mr Gove's – but it's worth thinking about where he comes from, what he has already achieved – two and a half years into his job – what he has still to do in his department, and what he could do afterwards.
Remember, remember: while David Cameron and George Osborne have a top-down Tory background as former special advisers, the Communities Secretary has a bottom-up one as a former Young Conservatives' Chairman and local council leader. He is one of the very few Cabinet members who can claim to be an activist himself. I think he can notch up three biggish achievements on his wall chart to date:
- A start on localism: In opposition, Conservative localists made the case for a radical shift of power from the centre to local people. Much of this plan was always unlikely to get past the Treasury, even were the economic times easier. And localism is about much more than local councils. None the less, they have a big part to play, and Mr Pickles has played his part in letting them take back autonomy. Regional assemblies have gone. So have government offices for the regions. So have the regional development agencies. So has the regionalisation of the fire service. So has the Standards Board. So has the Audit Commission. So has Comprehensive Area Assessment. Local councillors may complain of a shortage of funding, but they have more freedom than they did. And soon the force of the Localism Act will be felt, and with it the general power of competence which it gave to local authorities.
- Delivery on costs and transparency. The Communities Secretary was one of the earliest Tory politicians to grasp the implication of the accelerated voter demand for transparency, speeded by the impact of new technology. He made a start in his own department, slashing spending on corporate credit cards by over three-quarters (and cannily exposing Labour's record in government by placing every transaction since 2006 online). But what is good for the Whitehall goose is also good for the local council gander, and the requirement that all transactions over £500 be published has helped make a culture shift in local authorities. At a time when money is tight, Labour councillors have no longer had the easy option of running up costs while denouncing "Tory cuts". Mr Pickles has also delivered on popular pledges made in opposition, sweeping away Home Information Packs and implementing the council tax freeze with the help of the Treasury.
- Taking on political correctness. The Communities Secretary's decision to have a picture of the Queen displayed in the foyer of his Department set the tone early on, as did his battle with the EU over the requirement to fly the EU flag. These actions can be mocked as mere gestures, but they help to set a tone, and what a Department does can have consequences on the ground. For example, Mr Pickles acted quickly to ensure that councils could disregard attempt to make councils drop the ancient practice of holding prayers before meetings. Council officers have been instructed not to gold-plate the equality rules which demand that residents fill out intrusive questionnaires about their religious and sexual preferences. There has been a push from the centre on the unnecessary translation of documents into foreign languages, and the Communities Secretary pointedly says that his Department has ceased "to appease non-violent extremists".
There is a debit as well as a credit side. Supporters of City Mayors claim that Mr Pickles never lined behind the project, and that this is one of the reasons why it collapsed in the referendums held earlier this year. And it remains to be seen whether the Communities Secretary will line up behind big-scale reform to planning: to work, this would need to take powers from council planners and give them to local people.
But Mr Pickles's record compares well with his Tory Cabinet colleagues, which gives rise to a question. Mr Duncan Smith is a hero of the grassroots. So is Mr Gove, whose praises are also widely sung within the Westminster Village. The Communities Secretary is a master of publicity in his own sphere. None the less, he doesn't make the wider splash that some other Cabinet members do. Why?
I suspect the answer is that Mr Pickles has never been part of a gang. The Work and Pensions Secretary has a network of supporters, just as the Education Secretary has one of admirers. But their colleague has always been his own man, keeping much of his counsel to himself. And while other Cabinet members do so too – Philip Hammond, for example – Mr Pickles is hard to place in the party's own left/right axis.
The Defence Secretary is a member of David Cameron's seven-member "inner Cabinet". Mr Pickles is not. It's understandable that the former is ever-tipped for promotion. It's baffling that the latter seldom is. In the wake of Gate-gate, the question has to be asked: is class prejudice somehow at work here? Why shouldn't this Minister who Delivers be seen as (say) a future down-to-earth Home Secretary?