Departing Thoughts: Sir Eric Pickles
Sir Eric Pickles looks back on his 25 years at Westminster – a quarter century of great change for the Conservative party and for the Commons
I had decided that the 2015 parliament would be my last, but like most I thought it would last the full term. The Fixed Term Parliament Act turned out to be a paper wall easily pushed through. The machismo of politics overrode the opposition’s sense for survival.
Surprised as anyone, I had to make my mind up quickly. No dignified exit strategy, but a rush to the door. Within a week my replacement was in place and, for the first time in seven general elections, Brentwood and Ongar is without me as the Conservative candidate.
The manner of the announcement of my departure was very different from my original selection in 1991. No local reporters outside waiting for the result, but a preloaded statement on Twitter and Facebook timed for 8 o’clock the following morning, which within the week had reached over 45,153 people. It probably got to more people and media outlets quicker than 25 years ago, but I miss the relationship with the local reporter who knew the patch and everyone in it. One of the sad changes I have witnessed locally is the demise of local newspapers, most are freebees and there are no longer any newspaper offices within the constituency.
I arrived, accompanied by my wife Irene, at Parliament a few days after the general election in April 1992. We drove through Carriage Gates, security was very light then, the police officer waved us through. We continued to the underground car park and immediately became lost, eventually rescued by an amused reporter. We were not alone in our confusion. All day I bumped into disoriented future ministers who had strayed down unfamiliar corridors in pursuit of art works or just basic information.
The 2017 intake will be greeted by a well-oiled administrative machine: staff contracts, office equipment, room allocation, induction courses. Everything in neat folders, smart surroundings and a sense of order.
In 1992 it was a tad different. These were the days of the gifted amateur. No thought seemed to have been given to office space, equipment or practically anything. It was the political culture of Life on Mars, firmly rooted in the 1970s with a disdain for modernity.
At our first collective meeting with our own whips, a senior whip shouted at the assembly in the manner of Gene Hunt addressing a “grass”, who had not returned promptly with the expected information. I later got to know that senior whip rather well, a cultured and very agreeable man. Years later he confessed that his shouting was based on a Sargent he had met as a cadet at a young impressionable age and thought it might do the trick. It did not; as the parliament progressed discipline within Conservative ranks became chronic.
While there has been steady improvement within party management over the years I think the present whips office the best I have ever seen. It is not easy on a small majority to deliver votes but it’s been done by keeping close to people, keeping them informed and always knowing the numbers
After a few weeks working from a bench at the bottom of the staircase leading to the committee corridor I took matters into my own hands. Rooms were allocated between the Serjeant at Arms department and the government whips, but they rarely spoke to one another. So I found an empty room in St Stephen’s Tower, telephoned each party and told them that the other had allocated me the room. I remained there for the whole of my time in the Commons.
In a way the changes I have witnessed can be measured in technology. When I first arrived being at a location that had a division bell was vital, now it does not matter a jot. Typewriters have long given way to iPads, the written whip on paper to emails. Like minded MPs now organise themselves through encrypted WhatsApp groups.
Social attitudes changed and I with them. I voted against the civil partnership legislation, but after meeting constituents and visiting friends who had taken advantage of new law, I increasingly felt uncomfortable with my vote. To be frank I felt ashamed. I hope I made a small amends for my past intolerance by being one of the sponsors of the Bill that brought in same-sex marriage.
I served on the Conservative front bench or as a party officer at CCHQ for roughly twenty years. During the long years in opposition I worried that I would be part of a new generation of the likes of Roy Hattersley or Gerald Kaufman who would work long and hard for others to hold high office. I remain very grateful to David Cameron for appointing me to his cabinet.
One incident sums up my feelings at that time. At my first outing as Secretary of State, at DCLG Questions, I had carefully prepared what I would say. I rose to speak, my hands touched the worn brass-protected corners of the Despatch Box and a great tsunami of happiness rushed over me, washing away my fine words. I stared at the opposition and at Mr Speaker; they obligingly stared back. A voice inside said “I think you better say something” and so began five memorable years in government.
Do I have regrets stepping down? Yes. Do I think it was the right thing to do? Absolutely.
Sir Eric Pickles was Conservative MP for Brentwood and Ongar from 1992 to 2017