Monday, 4 February 2013

'Eric Pickles' on Politics, Family and..... Shropshire Blue Cheese!

The Right Hon Eric Pickles, MP for Brentwood and Ongar, isn’t quite as fat in person as he looks on television. He is also beautifully turned out, extremely pink and dimply, ridiculously light on his feet — gliding past the trio of cream sofas in his vast corner office like a giant besuited geisha — and immaculately mannered.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever shouted,’ he tells me , his chins jiggling in horror. ‘Or yelled about my cappuccino being cold, or getting the wrong kind of biscotti. And I don’t think I’ve ever been rude. I’ve been firm, but I don’t think I’ve ever been rude.

‘And I never lose my temper — it’s so unprofessional.’ Not even when his girth and weight have been the butt of endless jokes in the House of Commons: he is constantly described as ‘well-upholstered’, that ‘heavyweight Pickles’, and once even, ‘the only Cabinet minister you can spot on Google Earth’.

‘I’m rhinoceros-like: I could not care less about the comments.’

Or when he’s at the cinema on a Saturday afternoon gently weeping through one of his favourite romcoms (‘I always have a good cry, but I’m like Shirley Temple, so for me it’s more of a gentle moistening than big sobs’) and the idiots behind are rustling and coughing. Isn’t he tempted to turn round and give them both barrels?

‘No, no, no! I hate people who eat noisy snacks in films — the very idea of popcorn and hotdogs... But I’m English, so I just pretend it isn’t happening.’

Gosh. What a lovely old softie the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government sounds. Particularly when you add in his passion for birds such as bearded tits and waders, Wagner, opera, Michael Gove, The Only Way Is Essex, classic westerns, flags (‘I just love to see them fly’), reading P. G. Wodehouse in bed with Mrs Pickles and listening to Miles Davis.

Indeed, it’s hard to marry this Eric with the Beast of Bradford — the axe-wielding northern ‘Bulldozer’ who, in the past couple of years, has savaged council budgets by more than a quarter, declared war on town hall fat cats, local government lobbyists, quangos and fortnightly bin collections, cancelled all biscuits and florist bills in his department and even persuaded his own secretary to take a £50,000 pay cut to work for him.

But somehow, despite his gunboat diplomacy (and not irregular gaffes), Eric Jack Pickles has emerged as one of the most popular MPs in David Cameron’s otherwise predominantly posh, young coalition Cabinet (‘It is young — so I’m always pleased to see Ken Clarke there!).

Maybe his appearance helps. It’s hard to be afraid of a man who looks like Humpty Dumpty. But more likely it’s because while so many around him fudge and obfuscate, Eric, at 60, remains bluff, funny, refreshingly honest and open in his sing-songy voice.

He has been described as ‘the thinking man’s John Prescott’ and ‘William Hague without the intellect’ and seems to talk good common sense on everything from wind farms to bunting regulations.

Right now, he’s juggling a £6 million fund to teach immigrants English (‘it’s language that unites us’) and Britain’s 120,000 ‘troubled families’ who somehow cause £9 billion a year in damage. ‘We’re not trying to feel their pain. We’re trying to get their kids back into school, to get them off the sofa of despair and on the road towards a job.’

Oh yes and, of course, bins. Eric is obsessed with bins.

‘I doubt anyone’s as passionate as I am on bins. It’s never been just about the collection of the bins; it’s about how disconnected the political classes have become from the people. How they’ve been prepared to kick the living daylights out of people if they’ve put a yoghurt pot in the wrong place in order to get them to recycle.

‘If you’ve got a big detached house and your bins are down the path, then it doesn’t really matter to you when they’re collected, does it? But if you’re bringing up a family in a terrace house and you’ve got maggots and God knows what else making your bins smell, that’s not very nice, is it?’
Which is all very well, but when Eric was anointed Secretary of State in 2010, he promised a return to weekly bin collections. So far, just six million people enjoy weekly collections.

‘After a decade and a half of fortnightly collections, I’ve removed the push for them. Now it’s up to people to campaign their councils.’

Which sounds a bit of a cop out.

Other things that get him worked up (though only gently, of course) include Europe (‘the bureaucracy, the lack of democracy, the arrogance of the Commission, the waste of the Commission… but didn’t David’s speech go exceptionally well?’), wind farms (‘I don’t want to see them dominate the landscape’). Oh yes, and anyone stupid enough to muddle birders with twitchers.

'A twitcher is somebody who has a little book in which he ticks off a sparrow or a robin, gets very excited when he finds a bearded tit and rushes off to see a rare bird in an inappropriate place and write it down.

‘Twitchers are really train spotters,’ he explains patiently. ‘I’m a birder, which is completely different. I just enjoy birds. I have a journal, so I can write down what I saw on a particular day, but I record them visually, too, in watercolours and pastels. I live in East Anglia, which is heaven for birders, but I’ve been all over the world birding.’

With Mrs Pickles?

‘Oh yes, Irene loves birding. It’s something you can really lose yourself in.’
His other passions include jazz, cooking and sitar music.

‘I’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar. And maybe I still will. It’s never too late, is it? William [Hague] learned to play the piano, and does it very well. And Ed [Balls] is learning. I fancy the guitar: classic Spanish — that sort of thing ...’

Cross-legged with shirt flowing in the breeze as he plucks out a tune?

‘Sadly, I’ve never ever been of the shape that would take sitting cross-legged terribly well,’ he says wistfully. ‘I’ve always been a biggish guy, even as a boy.’

The young Eric, an only child of staunchly Left-wing parents (his great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party), grew up above his uncle’s grocery on a council estate in Keighley, Yorkshire.

As a teenager, he was far more interested in reading the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital than mucking about with his mates or kissing girls.

‘I had an intense interest in current affairs from a very young age. I was a very serious young chap, which I regret absolutely.’

A bit like William Hague — who famously read Hansard in bed aged 14?

‘I think he had more fun than me. But I think I’m a fairly jolly person now …’
Indeed, today his jolliness extends to assigning people their own personalised ring tones, so that when they call him on his mobile phone it plays a particular tune.

‘One very, very Eurosceptic chum has Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, the European Anthem.’

And has he given one for David Cameron’s number? ‘Yes, indeed,’ he says with a smile. ‘A very jaunty one. But that’s my secret.’

Eric rebelled during his teens — first becoming a communist and then, when he was 16, joining the Conservatives in protest at the Labour government’s inaction in 1968 over events in Czechoslovakia.

His conversion led to endless ribbing at home, but also true love. He and Irene (who works in accounts) met on a Young Conservatives weekend in Filey. They have been married for 36 years.
He went from Keighley Grammar to Leeds Polytechnic to Bradford council. Aged 35, he was leader of the council — the fourth largest in England. Then one day, at a conference cocktail party in Scarborough, Margaret Thatcher grabbed him (‘very firmly’) by the arm and suggested he stand as a Parliamentary candidate.

‘I wouldn’t say we were close, but she was very kind to me.’ He still visits her from time to time.

‘She has good days and bad days.’

Sadly, he and Irene never had children. ‘It wasn’t through choice, but we’re well beyond that now. ‘You can allow something like that to eat you up, and it’s massively important for it not to do so.
‘I’ve got two beautiful godchildren and the parents are kind enough to let me be involved a little bit with their lives, so that’s good.

‘I am a person of few regrets.’

Which is just as well — because he’s made a few mistakes and U-turns in his time. Such as his notorious March 2009 Question Time appearance when he argued his need for a second home in central London because he lived 37 miles from Parliament and needed to be at work on time, not stuck on some busy commuter train.

‘I’ve still got the recording, and any time I feel like I’ve done anything well I’ll play it to myself to show how things can go wrong. ‘It was a car crash, but I can’t say it’s changed my life. Everyone has a bad day, and at least I got a big hug from David Cameron afterwards.’

Then there was his comment on Desert Island Discs last December — which sounded suspiciously like ‘I hate going back to Yorkshire’ — and which angered umpteen proud Yorkshiremen.

And not forgetting his rather startling volte-face on gay marriage. ‘I was opposed to it — and then I completely changed my mind.’ So what happened? Was he prejudiced by ignorance? ‘Yes, I was, and I feel really sorry.’

Back in 2010, Cameron described him as a new Parliamentary star who’d ‘hit the ground sprinting’ — if you can imagine it. Given such pedigree, isn’t he keen to tackle a really heavyweight job — Home Secretary, perhaps — that for once doesn’t involve councils before he retires to full-time birding?
‘I serve under David’s pleasure, and I’ll do this job as long as he wants me to do it,’ he says very firmly.

Jeremy Vine shared a stalker with Eric Pickles

Cameron wasn’t his only fan. In 2010, it emerged that Eric ‘shared’ a female stalker (who acted out the notorious scene from the film When Harry Met Sally at a meeting he was due to attend) with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine. ‘She wasn’t well at all, poor woman.’

He has also attracted some rather amorous fan mail from a Russian lady. ‘Why the heck not? It’s lovely. Bless her heart.’

Gosh. And what does Irene make of it? ‘I think Mrs Pickles would be completely indifferent.’

So what do they chat about over his signature dish of beef bourguignon and dauphinoise potatoes (Eric does all the cooking chez Pickles) — Parliamentary gossip? ‘Not really. Mrs Pickles is a very saintly woman, so I wouldn’t want in any way to spoil her life with the sordid nature of politics,’ he says with a big pink twinkle.

Does she nag him about his weight instead? ‘Yes, but everyone nags me about my weight. And they’re right.’

Does it bother him?

‘Of course it does. No one likes being fat. I do try dieting and sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I lapse. I don’t like puddings and I can’t abide chocolate — I just don’t have a sweet tooth. I like crisps, but it’s a long time since I had one.’

So, er, why is he so fat?

‘Cheese. Shropshire Blue — it’s so high in calorific content you need only rub against it and that’s enough.

‘But I’m surprisingly fit. I had my blood pressure tested a while ago and it was very normal.’

He certainly seems remarkably unstressed. So does he ever lie in bed at night fretting about bins and literacy and troubled families?

‘No, never. I get into bed and read — right now it’s a book on Himmler — and Mrs Pickles reads magazines. And then I go to sleep. I’ve never had any problem sleeping.’

So has he ever wanted to be Prime Minister?

‘Oh no! I think that is the world’s worst job. In another life, I’d have been a film director. I love film noir and classic westerns.’

And romcoms? ‘Oh yes! I’m completely terrible at chick flicks — I love them. I’m off to see Les Mis next weekend with Mrs Pickles.’ And will he have a good cry? ‘Of course I will!’

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