Eric Pickles is somewhat comical in appearance. He has a large face and not very much to cover it with. It is this, above all else, that many years ago, prompted two students to take a life-size cardboard cutout of the then communities secretary on a five-week road trip across America, posting pictures of Eric Pickles glancing up in understated delight at the Golden Gate Bridge, the Las Vegas Strip, Yellowstone National Park and various other locations.
The ease with which many people laugh at Eric Pickles does the man a great injustice. He is, and always has been, one of the shrewdest politicians out there. That, admittedly, is very faint praise these days, but it was not always so.
Mr Pickles, now a peer and chair of the advisory committee on business appointments, which sounds boring, is boring, but has suddenly got rather interesting, understands far better than any of his successors that a politician’s words are their currency.
He exercises them with complete control. Though this is a tricky analogy to attempt, if politicians were Strictly Come Dancing contenders, Boris Johnson would be Ann Widdecombe – a flailing, ululating mess. Eric Pickles rarely offers anything less than a perfectly controlled Argentine tango. Each word, each revelation emerges with complete precision, hooking its leg around the public domain, and pirouetting on to the record. Its stiletto heel lands where its master tells it and absolutely nowhere else. All this is done with a smile, and with the dryness of a lizard lost in the Atacama desert.
You might not have known it, even if you were watching, but on Thursday morning, dialling in from home to a backbench parliamentary committee, Lord Pickles kind of defenestrated the entire civil service. It’s not something he probably ever imagined he might have to do, but it was what was required, and he certainly did it.
As chair of the advisory committee on business appointments, one of the things Lord Pickles has to do is oversee and approve what private sector jobs departing high-ranking civil servants go and do, and whether or not they might be using contacts or information gained while in the employ of the state for the private gain of themselves or others.
With almost no prompting, Lord Pickles breezily pointed out that he’d been waiting for a massive scandal to kick off from almost the very moment he started the job. The way in which it had kicked off, via David Cameron trying to chisel a business loan out of Rishi Sunak for Greensill Capital, for whom he now worked as an advisor, is not how he thought it might start. But the cat is very much out of the bag now. The can of worms is opened. The can is massive and the sheer number of worms involved is stomach turning.
Lord Pickles said he “felt slightly embarrassed” about the fuss that had been caused by his letter to the Cabinet Office. This letter was rather likely to cause a fuss. He asked why it was that a very senior civil servant, Bill Crothers, had not merely gone to work for Greensill without Eric Pickles having been consulted, but had done so three months before he’d even stopped being a civil servant.
The explanation offered was that the matter had been taken care of by an internal Cabinet Office ethics investigation.
“It’s an interesting argument,” Lord Pickles said. “I keep an open mind but at this point I can’t say I’m convinced by it.”
No further comment required.
Pickles would also drop a quite exquisite bombshell. Namely that in 2020, 34,000 people left the civil service. Of those 34,000, the future employment of just 108 of them had come across Lord Pickle’s desk. It is for this reason that he had become certain that a scandal was in the offing. He was, as ever, not wrong.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the Crothers revelation has stunned Whitehall. Perhaps people expect politicians to have a somewhat imperfect attitude to the rules, not least as a very great number of them have gone to jail over the years. But the public, probably, expects better of civil servants.
Civil servants regularly going on secondment to the private sector. There is no scandal there. The late Jeremy Heywood was very keen indeed on such things happening. But there are rules. Not least that you are forbidden from having any kind of meeting with anyone in government for at least the first three months of your secondment.
That a senior civil servant, the head of procurement no less, didn’t merely not meet with anyone in government for three months, but was himself the government, is staggering. Under clear civil service rules, Crothers would have been forbidden from meeting himself. He would not have been allowed to tell himself anything.
When he found out, Lord Pickles said, “to misquote PG Wodehouse, my eyebrow raised by a full quarter of an inch”.
This ugly beast, potentially has a very long tail indeed. There have now been, within the space of days, fully six separate inquiries launched into what is going on. They will not be limited to quite how Greensill Capital appears to have become something of a private government within the government, with no less than the former prime minister on its books, at the very first date at which he was allowed to be so.
There is also the fact that, perhaps, Eric Pickles fears he has been made to look the fool. He may look one, but he isn’t one. Whomever has done so is liable to regret it.