Friday, July 23, 2010

The Eric Pickles Interview

This is an extract from my Total Politics interview with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles. As you will read, there are some typical 'Eric moments' and also one or two quite newsworthy ones too. Enjoy.

ID: You hit the ground running when you first got here. How long is it now? Six, seven weeks?

EP: Something like that, yeah. These are precious times. If you don't set things out now, it's just not going to happen. There's got to be a combination of stopping things - and there are some pretty obvious things that need to be stopped - but also you need to set in trend the things you're announcing. I've got a whole raft of announcements, right the way through virtually until Christmas Day. I've done nothing that hasn't been part of the plan of what I wanted to fit in.

Even my unfortunate remarks about the uselessness of chief executives have all been part of the process of trying to get authorities to move together and recognise that they needed to do something, other than an alternative source of power to the leader of council. I discovered a new word, which is my new favourite word on that, which is German. I hope I'm pronouncing this right: doppelsplit, like doppelgang, meaning to be competing. The idea that a chief executive in a small district has any real prospect in the modern world of surviving without merging with neighbouring authorities in terms of administration or being involved with other organisations is well over.

Where you given any hints that this was the job you'd be given after the election?

No, I read you tipped me for it, so I thought it was a done deal.

Unfortunately David Cameron didn't follow all my other recommendations.

Well, he can't look like your puppet, can he?

What happened when you walked through the door to No 10 after being given the job?

It was a nice moment. Andrew Griffiths, who's now the MP for Burton and Uttoxeter and my former chief of staff, came to sit with me, which I thought was quite sweet - waiting for the call or the non-call. We walked across to No 10 and it was like having my mum take me to the school gates. I'd not been to No 10 for 13 years and it had changed a bit so I couldn't work out how to get in at all. A very nice camera crew from Channel 4 showed me how to get in. I went in and got appointed. I worked with David closely for a year and a bit. I'd seen him walk out to the Palace and all of that kind of thing. It was quite emotional really in its own way. I'd seen various folks and asked, what happens now? "Someone will ring you."

I went to have some lunch and sat there waiting and the telephone rings. "It's Nick outside. Is that the secretary of state, Eric Pickles?" I thought, yes it is!

He said: "I'll meet you outside. The department would very much like to meet you." I thought, well that's very nice. I said: "It's at the end of Victoria Street. I'll wander down." He said: "Don't worry, we'll send a car for you. I'll meet you outside in ten minutes." I went outside into New Palace Yard, but I couldn't see anybody. So I thought, what if he meant St Stephen's? I went and had a look there and I couldn't see anything. By now I'd forgotten his name, so I had to ring Central Office, to ring his department and it turned out he was waiting for me in Downing Street. He comes round. I sit in the cab and off we go.

I arrive at this North Korean moment. The entire building is out there, right up into the atriums, politely applauding me. You can see them saying: "Is it the fat guy? Is it the fat guy that's been appointed?" I made a little speech saying I normally only get applauded when I go round Tesco in my constituency. Then I came up here and just started.

After that the various ministers arrived, we divvied up what we were going to do and tried to work out a protocol in terms of the coalition. It was massively important that nobody could ever play games inside here, playing both ends against the middle. We have a meeting at 8.30am on a Tuesday for 45 minutes then a political meeting for 15 minutes with my Liberal colleagues, which sets out the rhythm of the week. Andrew [Stunell, Lib Dem CLG parliamentary under-secretary] has just been saying that we have been keeping them informed.

It must be odd though sitting down at a political meeting with a Liberal Democrat there?

Funnily enough, the way in which I think Oliver [Letwin], George [Osborne] and William [Hague] did the negotiations was unusual. The way these things usually work is almost on issue by issue. But, by and large, they had spent some time on the four big issues. They'd put together a position paper and they'd worked out areas of dissent well in advance. So we're actually working on agreed policy more than we probably would've done had it just been us.

Do you find that because you've got a political opponent there, that actually policy is tested more than it might have been otherwise?

The last thing you want, the last thing you need, the last thing that would screw everybody up, is if you marched folk up the hill and somebody "coughs" and you have to march down again. I would lose authority, this place would lose authority and suddenly it would be absolute anarchy. It would be like it was under Labour, where you have competing ministers fighting each other for authority within this building. This building was the Balkans until I arrived. I don't say this with any disrespect for John Denham or to John Healey but they were two competing positions in the way that [Caroline] Flint and Hazel [Blears] were. Ruth [Kelly] never really had much authority anyway. I needed to be absolutely certain that when I said something, it was never going to be contradicted.

Effectively you've come in to be a "change agent" in management speak. Parts of the civil service are there to resist big change. Probably in this department, you've got to institute some of the biggest changes of all.

Yeah, you are acutely aware that you are saying to people, who spent most of their professional life building it up into a particular model: "Thank you very much for doing that. But I'm afraid it's got to be different and we don't want to do that."

I want to put this politely, but occasionally you do things that surprise them. For example when we got rid of the Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA), we were just talking about it. They said: "You want to replace it with what?" Nothing. "Yes, okay. But what things do we want local authorities to be judged on? What's the regime?" Nothing. "So just to be clear secretary of state, when you say nothing, what do you mean?" Nothing. I mean nothing, absolutely nothing. It's pointless. It doesn't do anything. It doesn't get a bin emptied. No sure, of course we are going to inspect children's services but it's going to be in terms of life threatening right through to personal liberty. Those kinds of things are going to be dealt with. But some of the stuff was pointless. You just became quite good at filling the tick boxes. Nothing actually happened.

I've always thought "community" was an intrinsic left-wing word when used by government. Are you tempted to rename the department?

I'm not going to change the letterhead. I suppose I feel a little bit like Scrooge and Marley. Community is going to stay on. I do think it's about neighbourliness. I want to make neighbourhoods, long term, the residue of finance in local government, and short term, the residue of service delivery. You're not going to find anything restyled here. I don't know if they've cleaned the settees since John [Denham] left but he always looked to me like a pretty neat sort of guy. I can't imagine it was ever needed. The paintings... I've put my Che Guevara portrait up there.

I've noticed that. What is the point of that?

Che is there to remind me that if we let the system take over before we stop in any way, then the cigar-chomping Commies take over again. The cigar-chomping Commies are not going to take over on my watch.

There are a fair few of them in this department.

Bless their hearts. I don't mind what they do in their private lives. There is a default mechanism that exists and its intention which is big state, this is how we're going to do it. We've had quiet tussles. I've tried to do a number of things. Basically, I'm not mad keen on reports longer than two pages because after that most things are just word processing. I do think it helps to refine the argument and to try to get the argument out. We've done a number of things: going for shorter reports - I try to reply to letters on one side of A4, again because you just need to. We now have a terrific record of replying to MPs. You will find the odd one will sometimes drift on for about three or four weeks, but that's mostly because we don't like the draft. For most MPs, we get a turnaround well within a fortnight, which is quicker than most departments do.

Localism is a buzzword that everybody seems to subscribe to nowadays. You have, in the first few weeks of your tenure, made some decisions which people have criticised because you're issuing edicts to local authorities...

I've exalted. I've urged. We've asked them to do the transparency and, by and large, they've responded to that. But localism doesn't mean you go along and do what you like and never hear anything from me. I'm an opinionated so and so. Yes, folks have not been terribly happy with the things I've said about chief executives and pay. But it needed to be said. Have I introduced a pay scale for chief executives? No, that's none of my business. But that doesn't mean to say I don't have an opinion. Authorities need to know if they're talking about a lack of resources and they're a little district and paying £180k for their chief executive, or if they're a county with a chief exec on over £200k, I am not going to take them seriously. There's been a rush of increases in members' allowances. I'm not going to introduce a national scale. I'm not going to cap them. But I have to say to them, I don't take it terribly seriously at all. Don't tell me that some independent people agreed to this. You are the politicians. You've got to see the political climate is such where you've got set an example. You've got to be reducing what you do. You're going to be asking your staff to take a pay freeze. How can you look them in the eye when you've taken an increase?

What about local government structures? Labour wanted to have this regional agenda and elected mayors. Have you got any plans in that direction?

We want to see this in our larger cities. But, by and large, I'm not very interested in a restructure. Every single mistake people make is usually tied up with restructuring. I can't afford for local authorities to take two years out while someone decides who the new chief executive is, where they're going to have their headquarters, what does their paper look like, going back to the rebranding and all that kind of thing. I'm much more interested in the formal power structures. Now, I think it makes a lot of sense at a managerial level to merge functions at lower tier authorities.

Are you at all attracted by the idea of saving money by stopping annual elections in councils?

I've been thinking about that a lot. By and large, my stance is that people came to a decision when authorities were created. I am attracted to the idea of an all-out election because you can actually have real change created there. But it is something that might get wound up in the constitutional reform that the coalition is considering. But I don't think it's a bad idea.

The cabinet system in local authorities is very unpopular with a lot of people. If local authorities wanted to change that and go back to the committee system, what would your reaction be?

Fine. We will be putting something into the Local Government Bill to let them do that. I don't care how things are organised. They can have it on the basis of a committee system, on a cabinet basis, on the mayoral system. If they want to introduce it on a choral system with various members of the council singing sea shanties, I don't mind, providing it's accountable, transparent and open. That's all I need to know.

With regard to local government finance, successive governments have really ducked out of revaluations. Any views on entering that bear pit?

We are going to have a review of local government finance. We're not really ruling anything in or out. But, I have to say, revaluation in many ways is a red herring. What is immensely important in revaluation is keeping the property value between the north and south on roughly the same kilter. They are almost exactly what they were when they were first introduced. We certainly won't be getting in a spotter plane and saying: "I see No 27 has got themselves one more gnome than they are entitled to." We're not going to do any of that.

Have you made use of the relaxation room yet?

Harriet [Harman's] green monument to tranquility. I haven't. I just don't think I've got the karma to be there. I haven't even sat on those lovely couches. What are they called? Contemplation suites. It's funny, I was looking around the office on my first day. I saw these and asked how much they cost. Two grand a pop!

What's the most shocking thing you've discovered?

We've stopped a lot of things. There were all kinds of things that we were going to do in terms of meeting staff, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds when I could just walk around the office instead to meet them. Press cuttings were costing ten grand a month. My papers are the only papers now because I think I'm the only person that reads them. They come up and they're covered in ketchup and God knows what. There are other things but I really don't think I can go into that kind of detail here because we're in the process...

What do you think Lord Ashcroft is going to say about you in his book, which he is apparently writing?

I've got enormous respect for the good Lord. Bless his heart. I don't think I'd be sat here without him. But the guy is caustic and jolly and, whatever he has to say, I'm sure I'll enjoy it. We would not be here without him. I know he's very controversial. But ultimately we're here because of what he did.

Did you enjoy the election campaign?

Yes, I did. The ups and downs I did enjoy.

Do you think it was a problem though that there wasn't one person in charge. There wasn't a Lynton Crosby figure?

I thought George [Osborne] was very focused throughout the whole campaign. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, exactly the mountain we had to climb and he played a pretty good hand. He was the guy that was in charge. Right from the beginning people were saying: "Oh it's going to be dreadful with Ashcroft doing this and George doing that." But I always took the view that my role was to get the best out of them, to try to smooth any channels of communications, to be someone they could come to. I have to say it was a pleasure working with them all.

What was the worst moment of the campaign?

There is not a chance I'll answer that.

You clearly just thought of something.

I'm not going to lie, there were moments.

Are you happy with your public image? And what do you think it is?

Sort of fat, kind of... I think because of the job I did, being the party chairman, you cannot have a view other than the leader's view. You cannot see things in shades of grey. Labour is wrong, the Lib Dems are wrong, we are right. I've always been more consensual than my image has been - a kind of hard man that pushes things through. But that's largely because of the jobs I've had to do. I just had that thing on Radio 4, a profile, which I thought was pretty accurate. I don't think I know what my image is. Sometimes you see things on Twitter and you think, these people have no comprehension of what I'm actually like. But I don't care.

After Crewe and Nantwich, you supposedly got a lot of flack from people around Cameron. They were saying you had become too big for your boots. How did that affect you?

I didn't mind it. There might have been some truth in it. I don't think you could ever point to a single interview I did at Crewe and Nantwich where I didn't talk about the team and I didn't praise Stephen Gilbert [campaign director] and I didn't praise the people around us. I think I've consistently done that. You can never entirely predict how things... because I know who was responsible for the victory in Crewe and Nantwich, me or Stephen? Stephen by a mile. But I was working very closely with him. He asked me to take the weight of the press off and he asked me to be the campaign spokesman. Some people may have been unhappy that I did that very well but there was never any intention to be anything other than part of that team.

Doesn't it slightly irritate you when you see yourself written up as David Cameron's bit of Northern rough?

I see myself as a diamond geezer.

Was Question Time the worst experience of your political life?

No not by a mile, not by a country mile.

It's one of those occasions where you could see the shovel, but you couldn't quite resist picking it up.

We rehearsed what I was going to say as well, that was the worst thing. I was as out of touch as other MPs. I was so irritated by it, I didn't actually tell the audience that I stopped claiming some time ago before the controversy arrived. I was just as out of touch as anybody. I've still got the disc and if I do something really well I always make sure to play it late at night just to remind myself. I can virtually recite it. We had rehearsed it. It wasn't that I was caught unaware. But I was unaware in the sense that I was as unaware as most MPs. My claims were tiny but that didn't matter.

Do you think it's possible to make real friends in politics?

Yeah, you've got to understand that nothing is forever. If you sit at a table and plan out your career, a bit like telling God your plans, it's not going to work. Life is not a rehearsal for something else that's coming. I've seen too many people just eaten up by unfulfilled ambition that then destroyed their political career, their family life, without leaving any trace of a human being you'd like to have a drink or a chat with. So yes, it is possible to have people you can actually trust.

Tell me something that few people know about you.

I really like opera.

What would Mrs Pickles like to change about her man?

My weight, I'm sure.

One thing you wish you had known at 16?

That you aren't always going to be 16.

The worst gift you've ever given someone?
I was once given a musical farting Santa by my staff.

To read the full interview click HERE.


Stephen Wigmore said...

That was a great interview.

And then it got to the last line and I actually laughed so hard I spat my tea out onto the computer.

Unknown said...

Great interview, thanks.

He comes across very well.

Claire French said...

Good interview. I like the cigar-chomping commie - coming from an old Trot. Guess he just doesn't like smoking.

DespairingLiberal said...

Pickles On Lord Ashcroft: "... ultimately we're here because of what he did."

So there we have it. Where would you be without all that tax-free cash?

At least you didn't win on anything like policy, since it gets clearer by the day that we had no idea of half the things you are now doing, with supine, ignorant LibDem passive support.

Carl Eve said...

No questions about the interesting religious types who steamed into the Brentwood Conservative group then, which Eric didn't concern himself with...?

Iain Dale said...

I am sure that you as a professional journalist could have done a far better job than a mere mortal like me, Carl.

I am sure if I had interviewed him for a further hour or two I might have got around to that, but in case you hadn't noticed it concerned current issues, not those of a decade or so ago.

Jimmy said...

Congratulations on your scoop. I doubt we've heard the last of his admission that Ashcroft bought the election.

DespairingLiberal said...

Gosh, how lovely Iain - "it concerned current issues, not those of a decade or so ago" - thank goodness! No need for any tough questions then, for example, about why the Tories are serving up an easy ride to every Con-voting village nimby in the country to block much-needed social housing in the countryside. All under a thin-veil of pseuodo-local democracy that fools nobody.

It would have been too awful for you to have raised such tricky and not-at-all current issues with that nice Mr Pickles. Instead you quite rightly focused on some awfully nice things with him. What courage!

Unknown said...

Thank God for a whiff of sanity in the corridors...

Carl Eve said...

"a professional journalist"?

Gosh, that's not what you used to call me, is it Iain?

I only ask because of this -

Y'see, when I was at that rather inconsequential little paper up in Essex (at least, you may think it inconsequential) Eric was always very, very reluctant to fully answer any questions put to him by my colleagues who covered Brentwood.

Perhaps you - a mere mortal though you may be - may be able to illicit a better response the next time you and Eric sit down in the comfy chairs.

Ah, but it's all water under the bridge, no? Let's not pick over old issues and I'm sure all your forthcoming interviews will solely be on current matters rather than anything buried in a closet or pulpit...