Letter from Simon Kelner: Playground politics pain Pickles


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The Independent Online

We can only assume that Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, has a thick skin.

This is not the set-up for a joke about the giant-sized Mr Pickles, because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already done that one. In his conference speech, George Osborne – in poking fun at Ed Balls – said that being Gordon Brown's economic adviser (a job held by Balls) was "like being Eric Pickles' personal trainer. You wouldn't want that on your CV".

This is not the first time that Mr Pickles has been the butt of jokes from the Coalition hierarchy. David Cameron has called him a "heavyweight", while Nick Clegg, in one of his more amusing lines, said he "is the only Cabinet minister who you can spot on Google Earth". Until he became master of our rubbish collections, Eric Pickles was chairman of the Conservative party and, as a bluff, plain-speaking Yorkshireman, he is a long way removed from the silver-spoon high command of his party. So is this another example of public schoolboys bullying someone less gilded? Were their remarks fattist?

What if Mr Pickles were as spectacularly thin as he is fat? Somehow I don't think we'd hear a quip about having to run around in the shower to get wet. Of course, anorexia is no laughing matter, but then neither is obesity. Mr Pickles is reportedly sensitive about his size and refuses all requests to say exactly what he tips the scales at.

"My weight is a nightmare," he told an interviewer last year and explained that he had tried all sorts of diets. "My last one was no chips, no cheese, no seconds," he said.

Well, it's not exactly the South Beach, but it's a start, Eric. I'm not one to talk, having waged a lifelong battle to avoid being described as slim, but we know perfectly well that Mr Pickles can do something about his weight, which is why he might be considered fair game for the one-liners.

Yet I do think there's something juvenile and distasteful about making fun of someone's personal appearance. What next? Bald jokes about Iain Duncan Smith? Nerd gags about David Willetts? Surely not. That would reduce politics to the level of the playground and, if you've ever seen Prime Minister's Questions, you'll know how fanciful that idea is. And you won't catch me making cheap shots.

After all, I've just written a whole column about Eric Pickles without mentioning the Big Society!