Eric Pickles is not a man to mince his words. He refers to Unite, the workers’ union, as “militant”, and calls their political director Charlie Whelan “the epitome of the forces of hell”.
A subtle reference to the claims made by Alistair Darling last month of the way he was treated by Number 10.
Pickles is not your most likely of Conservatives. His great-grandfather founded The Independent Labour Party in 1893, and the family line has continued to remain doggedly left wing.
As a youngster, Pickles said that he was slightly inclined towards Communism, but now describes himself as “a first generation Conservative”.
Upon joining the party, he rose quickly to become chairman of the Young Conservatives, and is now the Chairman of the whole party. As such, heading the general election campaign falls into his remit.
But when will the general election be? “There’s only one man who knows that for certain” he claims emphatically, and pauses for effect. “And as soon as Lord Mandelson tells the Prime Minister, then we’ll know.”
“This year is like 1945, it’s like 1979, it’s a generational election, it will determine the fate of our country for more than just four years.”
Part of Pickles’ job is enthusing the campaigners and calling them to action. Amongst his methods for this are his YouTube ‘War Room Briefings’, in which he outlines what has to be done.
It is fair to say that the Conservatives do have a mountain to climb. They need to gain 117 seats this year, which is a bigger swing than even in 1979 when Thatcher was swept to power.
Labour are going to fight dirty in this election. The last thing we want to do is emulate that
Pickles knows this, but remains optimistic. “In truth, the polls, the only polls that really matter, are the ones in the marginal seats, and they came out last week and suggest that we are there or thereabouts poised to take those seats. Don’t underestimate it; it’s in battles with people like Julian here [in York Outer] that are going to make the difference. I think this is my fourth visit here to this seat.”
Although he helped with the 2005 campaign, a lot has subsequently changed for Pickles.
The emergence of blogs, Facebook and Twitter have added a new dimension to the world of political campaigning, and it is something that Pickles has latched onto remarkably quickly.
“Labour are going to fight dirty in this election. The last thing we want to do is to emulate that. The importance of our bloggers is instant rebuttal – it is important that when a lie is made then the lie is nailed straight away. So far it has worked out reasonably well, and we have had a number of incidents so far where Labour MPs are claiming that we are closing down hospitals and we have been able to completely rebut that immediately.”
Family: “We are determined to make Britain a family friendly place. A place that respects marriage, and that doesn’t just include heterosexual marriage, but also includes gay people.”
Abortion: “That kind of thing has been very important as a political issue in the U.S., and Britain will always treat this as a matter of individual conscience, so David would resist, and I would resist, that becoming a party political issue.”
The election: “Do you want to see Gordon Brown and his Government in Number 10 making things worse, or do you want to see David Cameron and the Conservatives, who have the leadership, the energy and the values to get Britain moving again? That’s the choice.”
John Prescott on Twitter: “Oh, bless his heart, I rather like him. He just seems to me to destroy the spontaneity of it, because his son does it for him.”
Debt: “I think we need to understand just how much money £1.4tn is. It’s a lot of money, even for Lord Ashcroft, and an equally large amount of money for a Unite union.”
America: “The special relationship that I’m interested in is extending our friendship in exactly the opposite direction to the U.S. and towards China, India and Pakistan. We need to focus our economic and our political interests, because that’s where the geopolitical power is going to be this century.”
Prisoners: “I can’t believe that we’re being told to give people in prison the right to vote. That doesn’t strike me as being a terribly sensible thing to do.”
What about social networking sites? “Massive, massive, massive. But I suspect that Facebook will have the edge because through Facebook you’ve got the capability of mobilising. As it stands right now, we’ve got 22,000 people on our Facebook site, and Labour’s got 5,000. We’ve got 20,000 on Twitter, Labour’s got 10,000, so we’re tending to dominate the social networking sites.
“We’ve just started MyConservatives.Com, which gives them an ability to be able to campaign online and to canvas online, and it gives the ability to people who aren’t in marginal seats to offer help directly here. It’s going to be very big.”
Pickles describes himself as “proper common, proper working class.” His background very much affects his politics, a fact that comes out when talking about what the Conservatives have to tackle if they win the election.
“We’re not just going to be judged on economic competence. We’re also going to be judged on how we deal with the most disadvantaged, those estates, those failing schools, and youth unemployment, nearly the highest in Europe. One thing that really hacks me off is the way in which Labour have abandoned the working class estates.
“Another thing that we are determined to is to reduce the cost of politics, and one thing that we’re going to do is reduce the number of MPs down 10% to 585. Part of that process will be that every constituency will be the same size, so that your vote will matter wherever you are. We will do that in time for the next election.”
Finally, the biggest problem facing the Conservatives at the election is, in Pickles’ opinion, being labelled as “the same old Tories: That we are concerned more with economic management than with looking after people. That is why it is very important that we start a process of bringing the state down and helping the most vulnerable. We will not abandon parts of the country in the way that Labour have.”
He says that the Conservatives have changed, but does part of him wish that they hadn’t? He outlines all of the areas where the Conservatives would help those who are the worst off, including poorly performing schools and those on long term unemployment benefit.
“So no,” he adds, “I don’t miss the old days. If necessary I can always read George Orwell.”
Eric Pickles is the Tory MP for Brentwood and Ongar