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Tuesday 1 February 2011

Fat Eric – The Liberal Obstacle

It is late March 2009, and the ruckus over MP’s expenses is starting to kick off among the media, generating increasing cynicism among the electorate. The BBC Question Time programme, out and about around the UK, fetches up in Newcastle-on-Tyne, with regular chairman David Dimbleby flanked by four relatively serious politicians, plus novelty act Michael Winner.

The seating arrangement is unusual, with Labour’s Charles Clarke and Tory Eric Pickles on the same side of the chair. Opposite them are Green MEP Caroline Lucas and Lib Dem Ed Davey. The audience are restless, and not placated by any mention of expenses, as Fat Eric finds out to his cost, his performance closely resembling an on-air car crash.

But another detail is telling: Davey clearly dislikes Pickles. And he shows contempt for Keighley’s most infamous son when Pickles tells him that Liberals “don’t matter”. Thus another revelation from the Pickles past: Fat Eric hated the Liberals back in the 1980s. They kept his team out of power, and on occasion propped up Labour.

When reorganisation of local Government created the Metropolitan District of Bradford in the early 1970s, the party balance changed. The solidly Labour voting city was balanced by Tory supporting towns like Shipley and Ilkley. There were rural wards too: these would lean to the Tories. Bradford became finely balanced between the two main parties.

And this suited the Liberals fine, because with only two or three seats out of 90, they often held the balance of power. On one occasion in the early 80s, they forced the Labour group to adopt the Liberals’ capital plan as the price of propping them up. Fat Eric knew he couldn’t drive through a Thatcherite agenda if the Tories were dependent on Liberal support.

So the Tories had to get an outright majority. How else could they win votes and push their plan through? But that majority never came: in 1988, the Tories had a good local election in Bradford, but when the results were all declared, they still came up short. However, after a by-election that September, they won a seat from Labour, and this gave the Tories exactly half of the 90 seats.

Fat Eric now had to work on making sure this translated into a winning half, not a tying one. That comes next.

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