Eric Pickles is on a road trip around the USA. Which, for a devotee of the English countryside and a champion of localism, is an unusual step - but then, the Secretary of State for Local Communities and Government never fails to surprise.
He has been photographed sunbathing in Crawfordville, Florida (fully dressed: he's no fool), snapped striding past bikini-wearers on Miami Beach, briefcase firmly tucked under arm), and was recently seen standing strong on Atlantic beach next to a Union Flag. (No surprise there: Eric Pickles loves flags. Supporters will be delighted to see that his enthusiasm stretches past St George's Day and well into August.) Oh, and he popped up in Olustee Battlefield, standing on some artillery from Civil War times.
He has the look of a man who means business, unflappable in any setting. And well he might, because he's been doing his tour as a near-life size cardboard cut-out of himself, courtesy of university students James Johnson (Oxford) and Daniel Falvey (Nottingham), both 21, who have taken it upon themselves to cart him around America this month. Both Conservative voters, they claim to genuinely admire Pickles: “He has a lot of gravitas, and he's a funny man,” Johnson says, on the phone from Florida. “What better way to spice up our American road trip than bringing along the man himself?”
The boys say there's an extremely good chance the Right Honourable MP doesn't even know about this profile-raising activity - unless under that bluff earthy exterior is actually a PR whizz who wants to break America. He's certainly received a lot of attention from people who were unaware of his celebrity. “All the Americans ask who it is,” says Johnson, “and, when they find out, some are a bit baffled and others find it hilarious. It's a great way to bond with people. People want photos with it and want to know more. It's a great way of getting us interacting with the locals. It's a talking point.”
So the novelty of wielding their paper friend isn't wearing thin yet? “We're one week into five weeks, and he's coming all the way,” he says. “He's coming to Vegas, which is our last stop.” Keep up to date with their picklesroadtrip.com blog to find out if he's a high roller.