Eric Pickles: A very working-class Tory

The new Conservative chairman (Keighley Grammar and Leeds Poly) is meant to 'de-toff' the shadow Cabinet. He explains how the party can reach deeper into Labour territory – and why you'll never find him on a yacht. Jane Merrick meets... Eric Pickles

Sunday 25 January 2009 01:00
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Unlike some of his more high-rolling colleagues, Eric Pickles has never been on a yacht, and is proud of the fact. "I once went on the Liverpool to Birkenhead ferry, it was quite jolly but it was a bit nippy," he says. "I have the great advantage that Mrs Pickles gets very seasick. I never take the woman on water, so it's not likely to happen."

Mr Pickles's lack of seagoing credentials appears to be one of the very reasons David Cameron promoted him to chairman of the Conservative Party last week. For the Tories in 2009, cocktails with billionaires on the sundecks of yachts off Corfu, and Bullingdon Club outfits, are out. Hard graft and talking to families in supermarkets about the recession are in.

According to Labour and Lib Dem sources, when focus groups are presented with a picture of the Tory leader and George Osborne together, they respond with words such as "posh" and "toff".

Mr Cameron pictured alone does not provoke such a strong reaction, suggesting it is the shadow Chancellor who is contaminating the Conservative leader. This may help to explain why, as Mr Cameron steps up attempts to broaden the appeal of his party, Mr Osborne's presence at his side has been diluted by a string of state-school-educated, working-class blokes.

Suddenly, William Hague (comprehensive-educated) is Mr Cameron's "deputy leader in all but name". Ken Clarke (shopkeeper's son) is brought back as shadow Business Secretary, while Chris Grayling (grammar-school boy) is made shadow Home Secretary, and Mr Pickles (also a grammar- school boy) becomes chairman.

In his first interview in the new job, Mr Pickles explains the strategy to win over "hard" Labour supporters who have never dreamed of voting Tory in their lives. The plan is modelled on last year's Crewe and Nantwich by-election, now seen as a landmark in the Tory resurgence, when thousands of working-class, lifelong Labour voters switched straight to the Conservative candidate, Edward Timpson.

It now appears to be characterised as the "chip-shop strategy" – based on talking to men and women in the chip-shop queues in Crewe.

Rather than simply attracting back floating voters who backed Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s but switched to Tony Blair in 1997, Mr Pickles says the Tories want to go further into Labour territory. Sitting in his new office at Conservative campaign headquarters, surrounded by maps of target seats, he says: "Crewe was about building a bridge that they felt safe to come across and to give us support. I set down a task, that in the chip-shop queue a couple of weeks later, they would be proud to say they voted for Edward, proud to say they voted Tory."

But how can the Tories replicate this one sensational victory, which in any case was helped by Labour's disastrous campaign to portray the Tory candidate as a "toff"? Mr Pickles says: "Look, I'm a first-generation Tory, OK? We were Labour voters. It's not an easy thing, to go for a Conservative, because we believe all this stuff, and it's sort of in your DNA...

"It's about getting through the class thing, getting through the jargon... to say look, the Tories, they really do get it. I do genuinely feel sometimes that Labour's the ruling class... who are there to administer us, but don't really understand what it's like any more."

I wonder whether, coming from the Tories, a "chip-shop" strategy may seem a little patronising.

But Mr Pickles, 56, luxuriates in his working-class roots. Born into a Labour-supporting family, after Keighley Grammar he went to Leeds Polytechnic. He has been MP for Brentwood and Ongar in Essex since 1992.

He spent a relatively anonymous 10 years on the Tory front bench before, as shadow Local Government Secretary last May, he won praise from Mr Cameron for masterminding first the Tories' local elections campaign, when the party won a 44 per cent share of the popular vote, and, later that month, the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, which saw an incredible 17.6 per cent swing from Labour to the Tories.

This triggered rumours that he was lining himself up to replace Caroline Spelman as chairman, especially when she ran into difficulty last summer over the alleged state-funded payments to her nanny. Although Mrs Spelman awaits the verdict of the parliamentary inquiry into the affair, Mr Pickles was given her job anyway. While Mr Cameron would deny he is consciously trying to "de-toff" his shadow Cabinet, the daughter of a banker was replaced by a railwayman's grandson.

But while Crewe was a huge victory, I ask, the Tories hardly have great support elsewhere in the North. "Stop it. Stop it," Mr Pickles interrupts, his usual jovial tone evaporating. "Crewe and Nantwich killed one story: that Cameron's brand does not run in the north of England. It does.

"I have to say as an expat Yorkshireman, I am fed up to my back teeth of southern journalists, even people as nice as you, patronising us, treating us like we're a strange beast. We're not."

I quietly explain that I am also a northerner, and Mr Pickles quickly apologises, and turns his fire on Gordon Brown, who does not "get it".

"If you asked him about the price of petrol, he would tell you the futures market of barrels, but he couldn't tell you what it was at the pump."

But surely it is Eton-educated Mr Cameron who does not understand financial hardship? "Well, David had his bike nicked... outside Tesco's. I mean, it wasn't even Waitrose. So he wasn't even shopping in a toff's supermarket."

Mr Pickles says he has never felt any "glass class ceiling" inside the Conservative Party in the 40 years he has been a member. The Tory party "does not believe in class politics".

For emphasis which is only half-comic, he adds: "Nobody should look down on somebody just because they have the misfortune to go to Eton. Nobody should look down on someone just because they went to a comprehensive."

As well as courting the Labour working classes, Mr Pickles is leading what he calls a "lovebombing" of Liberal Democrat voters, especially in the South-west. This involves telling people who care about civil liberties and the environment that they have a better chance of getting what they want by voting Tory. It echoes a speech by Mr Cameron last Thursday in which he claimed to have a party of "progressive Conservatives", pushing the Tories further into the centre ground.

Mr Pickles says he is "utterly charmed" by Mr Cameron. "It will be very nice, I will have a lump in my throat, you know, it will be quite emotional to see David walk into Downing Street." The press officer sitting in on our interview clearly thinks this sounds like the next election is already in the bag for the Tories, and chips in: "While guarding against complacency."

One thing that does threaten the party's electoral chances is the return of Mr Clarke triggering infighting over Europe, I suggest. "Ken now has the benefit of the wise words of his colleagues, and is subject to collective responsibility, and I don't expect him to be anything other than an asset on the doorstep," Mr Pickles says, but warns colleagues: "If the party talks to itself, we will lose; if the party talks to itself, we won't make it."

For the general election, Mr Pickles insists he is "there to help George" in the shadow Chancellor's role as campaign organiser, and denies that Mr Osborne has mishandled the Tory response to the economic crisis – which has led to the Prime Minister's claim that they are the "do nothing" party. "The big mistake would have been to come out with thousands of little different initiatives. What we did come out with was steady and measured, and it all kind of fitted together."

While Mr Pickles is happy to declare he has never been aboard a yacht, he insists the Corfu saga that embroiled Mr Osborne last year was "not that damaging". "It became important and George had to take an enormous amount of ribbing in this building.

"I don't think it had terrible traction. I don't think he'll be going to Pontin's next year."

A life in politics

1952 Born in Keighley, West Yorkshire, into Labour-supporting family.

1968 Joins Conservative Party after Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

1970 Attends Leeds Polytechnic.

1976 Marries Irene Coates.

1979 Elected to Bradford Council.

1988 Serves as Conservative leader of the council until 1990.

1992 Is elected as MP for Brentwood and Ongar.

1998 First frontbench role as shadow pensions minister.

2001 Defeats independent candidate Martin Bell, who stood over claims – denied by the Tories – that members of a controversial church had infiltrated the party branch.

2002 Appointed shadow Local Government Secretary under Iain Duncan Smith. Demoted to shadow minister by Michael Howard in 2005.

2007 Brought back to shadow Cabinet under David Cameron, again with the local government brief.

2008 Successfully runs Conservative campaign for Crewe and Nantwich by-election, leading to 17.6 per cent swing to Tories, as well as local government campaign.

2009 Appointed Tory chairman.

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