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Monday 31 January 2011

Fat Eric – Humble Beginnings

Having made an earlier than usual Sunday morning start, Eric Pickles is relaxing on the clearly indestructible sofa on the set of The Andy Marr Show. Taking his turn on the programme’s paper review, Fat Eric laces his comments with a skill he knows well – the casual smear. His Labour opponents, he suggests, are out of touch, living in their “palatial mansions”.

And so an apparent inferiority complex was revealed. Pickles’ family didn’t have any kind of mansion: in his formative years, his parents ran a shop in Parkwood, a less than salubrious part of Keighley. The family lived on the first floor. Eric could not have helped but notice the difference between that and the proper house where his former friend Peter Gilmour lived. The Gilmours lived on Hospital Road, across the river in upmarket Riddlesden.

Gilmour, as I noted yesterday, lost his council seat as the Honeyford affair rocked Bradford council. Pickles, who had done little outside politics, had suddenly turned into a populist, and one now aware that doing the bidding of the Tory party in London – rather than the local party in Keighley – would be to his advantage if he wanted to continue his political career.

And the figure for aspiring Tories to watch in the mid-80s was then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her style was combative, her attitude to the Labour opposition dismissive. Pickles could see a stark contrast between his party’s leader and the cosy co-operation of Bradford council, where Tory group leader Ronnie Farley and his Labour counterpart Phil Beeley were good friends, and often part of the same social group.

Ronnie Farley, who I encountered before he sought elective office, told a good story, so when in later years the tales of his sexual conquests circulated around City Hall, I and many others took them with a significantly sized pinch of salt. By that time he drove a Porsche 911 and was very much a high profile politician, but his brand of conservatism did not always sit well with the Thatcherite view.

The Tories had a bad local election in 1986, and Ronnie stood down as head of their group on Bradford council. He was succeeded by Fat Eric. Farley was, by all accounts, not totally trusting of Pickles, but remained loyal to the party. Pickles, meanwhile, had set his sights on not only getting the Tories back into power, but bringing a Thatcherite zeal to local Government.

However, he would have to overcome one problem: Bradford’s electorate habitually returned a council that was either hung, or with the smallest of majorities. It was, among northern cities, quite unique.

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