Saturday, February 12, 2011

'Gunboat diplomat' leaves Coalition in a pickle

More than 20 years ago, a young , Conservative council leader gained a measure of notoriety after unexpectedly seizing control of the hitherto safe Labour authority of Bradford.

Storming into office at the May 1988 local elections, he announced a five-year plan to cut the council's budget by £50m, slash the workforce by a third, and outsource most council-run services to private operators.

For a while, 'Bradford-style Toryism' became something of a by-word in local government circles, with some like-minded authorities modelling themselves on it, while others cited it as a warning of what happened when Tories took control.

After its brief flirtation with uber-Thatcherism, Bradford soon returned to the Labour fold - but that Tory council leader went on to become probably the most influential politician to emerge from local government since Labour's David Blunkett.

His name was of course Eric Pickles and, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the coalition administration, he is now in ultimate charge not just of Bradford but of every town and city hall in the country.

Among grassroots Tories, Mr Pickles is a hugely popular figure – but it is fair to say those feelings are not always shared by his Liberal Democrat Cabinet colleagues – or by political leaders in the North-East region.

During the early months of the Coalition, he fought a running battle with Business Secretary Vince Cable over whether the North-East should retain a distinctive regional voice – a battle characterised by briefing and counter-briefing on both sides.

It did not help that Prime Minister David Cameron was bored by the stalemate and told the protagonists to sort it out between themselves rather than taking sides.

What sort of regional political institutions will emerge from that process is still unclear. Many hope the proposed local economic partnership covering Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear will be able to take on at least some of the role of axed regional development agency One NorthEast.

But the limitations of the scorched earth approach to all things regional employed by Mr Pickles and others in the Coalition's early days are already becoming clear.

As was revealed in a parliamentary answer this week, Dr Cable's department for Business, Innovation and Skills is having to create new local offices to carry out work previously carried out by the regional government offices.

This provides further proof of what some of us were saying all along: that if the regional tier of governance did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

But if Mr Pickles' pathological hatred of regionalism has caused controversy in the North-East, his attitude to local government spending has caused ripples on a far wider scale.

Newcastle council leader David Faulkner was only one of more than 90 Liberal Democrat councillors who signed a letter to The Times this week protesting at the scale and pace of cuts to their authorities.

Part of their anger stems from Mr Pickles' uncompromising political style, which they described as 'gunboat diplomacy.'

"The secretary of state's role should be to facilitate necessary savings while promoting the advance of localism and the Big Society. Unfortunately, Eric Pickles has felt it better to shake a stick at councillors than work with us," said the letter.

The reference to the Big Society was illuminating, in the context of Labour-run Liverpool's recent refusal to co-operate with Mr Cameron's flagship initiative.

But the wider political significance of the row over local government spending is that it plays into the area of relations between the two governing parties.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg needs to be able to take his party with him if the Coalition is to survive long-term, and on this issue he is clearly some way from succeeding.

And there is only one place that will ultimately leave the government: in a pickle.

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6 comments:

Anonymous said...

'The reference to the Big Society was illuminating, in the context of Labour-run Liverpool's recent refusal to co-operate with Mr Cameron's flagship initiative.'

You obviously don't know,it's called playing politics.

You should know by now that if lefties don't have truck loads of taxpayers money to piss away the world comes to a halt.

Joe Otten said...

Paul, you're echoing the dominant narrative on this question, but not a defensible one.

First, if you read the letter

http://richardkemp.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/our-letter-to-the-times/

it is clear that the objection is not to the "scale and pace" of cuts - that's Labour's phrase (as if the scale of the deficit were the coalition's choice - but I digress). Rather the objection is to the front loading of the cuts, and to Pickles' bluster and obstruction to councillors' efforts to minimise the impact of the cuts.

And what makes this a problem for the coalition? Local government leaders of any party should feel no obligation to support the government. The world does not end when Labour council leaders complain about a Labour government.

LaToyah McPhail said...

It seems to me that the appointment of Eric Pickles to the post of Local Government Minister is an example of what I call "The Rottweiler Principle".

If a government has an area of policy that they know is going to give them a rough ride then they appoint a minister who can "give as good as they get". I noticed this with the Labour government and it seems to me that the coalition are doing the same.

The fact that he referred to council newsletters as "town hall Pravdas" says it all.

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Anonymous said...

'Storming into office at the May 1988 local elections, he announced a five-year plan to cut the council's budget by £50m, slash the workforce by a third, and outsource most council-run services to private operators'

You forgot to mention the improvement of services with a third less bureacrats.

LaToyah McPhail said...

"You forgot to mention the improvement of services with a third less bureacrats."

Fistly...anonymous

Secondly...no supporting evidence

Finally...typical