A Bradford council insider, looking back on Eric Pickles’ mercifully short tenure as leader, observed that he had been “arrogant and ruthless, pugnacious, utterly charmless and incredibly reactionary”. But Fat Eric had also been doing his homework, and had figured out how to turn the Tories’ 45 seats – exactly half the total – into a solid majority.
Pickles had discovered that the power of the Lord Mayor was more than merely ceremonial. Sure, the holder of that office could make a casting vote on procedural matters, but on policy, it was the custom that a tied vote meant maintenance of the status quo – or so it was thought. Pickles’ research showed that the Lord Mayor could make not only a casting vote, but a substantive one in addition: it was, in effect, a potential 91st councillor.
And Pickles was doubly lucky: the sitting Lord Mayor, Smith Midgley, was not only a Tory, but also one of Pickles’ colleagues from Keighley. All that was needed to drive through policy changes was to make sure all 45 Tory councillors turned up for the vote, which by and large they did.
That was fortunate, because the Tories had, during the election campaign, told their electorate that Labour had been wasting ratepayers’ money. Sad to say, though, when Fat Eric and his troops opened the books, there was very little evidence of waste, and certainly not enough to make a cut in the rates.
But savings had been promised – the intention was to cut 50 million from spending over five years – so a programme of price increases and sell-offs began. Charges for leisure centres, school meals, home helps, meals on wheels, car parking and even cemeteries were raised. And old peoples’ homes were sold off. Council house rents went up and many local Government workers – including teachers – lost their jobs.
Not surprisingly, the Labour and Liberal opposition were annoyed enough at the prospect of large scale cost increases and job losses to turn up to every vote, producing a tie. But Smith Midgley would dutifully cast his vote with his fellow Tories, and Pickles would carry the day, whatever the criticism.
There was only one problem with this approach: the Lord Mayor’s term was for one year only, and it was the Liberals’ turn in 1989 to nominate a candidate. But a Liberal Lord Mayor would stop Fat Eric and his reforms in their tracks, so once again the council’s leader did his homework: he discovered a solution that would make him, and his party, uniquely unpopular.
But not with the party leadership – that comes next.