While much of the press has been working itself into a frenzy of Labour bashing at the news that some of the party’s MPs will not be standing for re-election, that same level of scrutiny has not always been applied to the Tories, where - to no surprise at all - several of their number, including former ministers, have also decided to call it a day in June. One of those in the latter category is Brentwood and Ongar MP Eric Pickles.
It therefore looks as if Pickles, with his faux “man of the people” persona, will retire unscathed from a career which demonstrated the extreme flexibility of his principles, a penchant for shameless opportunism, and an ability to ally himself with the right people at the right times, yet complemented by very little visible talent.
Some observers may be surprised that Eric Pickles began his political career on the progressive wing of the Tory Party. He was anti-racist, consensual and small-L liberal. All of that changed when Ray Honeyford came along.
Honeyford was appointed headmaster of Drummond Middle School in Bradford, located in an area which had a racially diverse population. While in that job, he wrote an article for the Salisbury Review, which at the time was “pro-repatriation”. Very few people read the piece, as the Salisbury Review enjoyed a very small circulation. But then someone at the right-leaning Yorkshire Post had it reprinted in that publication, and all hell broke loose.
One look at the title of Honeyford’s article tells you why: “Education and Race - an alternative view”. The contents were little short of incendiary. The local education authority decided Honeyford had to go. But Tory high command, which included then PM Margaret Thatcher, decided otherwise. In this, she was backed up forcefully by the Daily Mail, even then a force for vicious, reactionary, and borderline racist views.
In the next round of council elections, Pickles’ friend Peter Gilmour lost his seat, with many party workers refusing to campaign for him. Pickles dumped the principled approach and from then on became a fervent populist. He backed Ray Honeyford against his colleagues and the Drummond parents. Mrs T clearly approved.
Pickles later became Tory group leader on Bradford Council: here, he managed by creative interpretation of the rule book to secure a majority of one in crucial votes and push through what became known as the “Bradford Revolution”. Mrs T applauded him for keeping the Poll Tax down, although central Government may have used a little creativity of its own to make the numbers add up. The consequences for ordinary people were dire.
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. Relations between the Tories and other parties in Bradford were poisoned for years afterwards. Pickles’ administration did not survive another round of local elections.
And then, on the quiet, Pickles cast around for a Parliamentary seat well away from Bradford, ultimately finding himself on a shortlist of one for Brentwood and Ongar. His policy in national Government was as it had been locally: selling off services, year-on-year cuts, demonising and blaming Trades Unions and any politician of opposing view.
He did this while carrying an enormous chip on his shoulder: when Pickles sneered that Labour politicians were out of touch and lived in “palatial mansions”, it harked back to when his parents ran a shop in Keighley’s less than totally salubrious Parkwood district. There was no “mansion” for young Eric: he had to share a first floor flat. Thus his career inferiority complex and burning sense of victimhood.
Despite that, and despite his lack of discernible ability, Eric Pickles managed to convince the Tories to give him a ministerial portfolio, and then show their gratitude by gifting him a knighthood. And all the while he has done little, if anything, outside politics, even when he was a humble Councillor: his predecessor as leader of Bradford’s Tory group, Ronnie Farley, was an accountant and businessman. Not Eric. He was just a politician.
And now, with many still not having rumbled him for the empty vessel he walks, looks and sounds like, Eric Pickles is retiring to spend more time with his comfortable pile of money. But probably not anywhere near Bradford.