Cancelled spending reviews, policy blueprint documents grandly titled Building Britain's Future, and a bitter personality and policy clash with the opposition leader that currently centres on a cuts vs spending row. It seems that Gordon Brown is gearing up for a general election. It is a situation that pleases Eric Pickles, Conservative Party chairman. Pickles doesn't even pretend to be enthusiastic about the summer recess.
"I'd be quite happy if we cancelled the recess," he says, as if Mr Pickles the teacher is ready to spoil everyone's fun by cancelling the trip away. "I may take a break but I'm not planning to right now. I'm quite sure that colleagues are going to be spending a lot of time in their constituencies, and also in target seats. I think recess is about connecting with the electorate, listening to them and what they have to say and responding to them." There is a strong sense that this recess is going to be a busy time for Conservative MPs. Even if Westminster is quiet, it is easy to imagine Pickles looking at his beloved whiteboards in his office at Conservative HQ over August.
The Conservatives are "actively considering the possibility of an autumn election" says the party chairman, with plans at "a high state" of readiness.
Recently Brown and Cameron have been battering it out over whether Labour will really continue increasing spending and whether the Tories will cut it by 10 per cent. It is a return to the old Tory cuts attack that has proved so profitable for Labour in the past. But it is not proving as successful in 2009, with Treasury figures appearing to undermine the Prime Minister's position. Pickles agrees that the Tory 10 per cent line is "not believed outside the chamber and I don't think it is even believable in the chamber anymore".
He adds: "If the debate got on to Tory cuts vs Labour cuts, I think we then get into a much more unpredictable outcome. We might be able to have a sensible discussion, a real debate about the politics of priority against a realistic backdrop." Does that mean if Labour played it straight about cuts, the Conservatives could get worried?
"It has the advantage it would be on the basis of truth," replies Pickles. "I think we would be triumphant, but I don't think it would be predictable. The thing about the Prime Minister is, he is a one-trick pony. When he became Prime Minster I was expecting some real vision, some sense of direction. After all, he postponed the election to give us an idea of where it was going. The man seems stuck. I think he's stuck in a discotheque in 1992 and he wants to re-fight the election and the chorus goes ‘here we go again, here we go again'."
Whenever the general election takes place, it will be the first with a mature blogosphere and with the widest ever means of campaigning. Does that mean Pickles will be immersed in technology to spread the word as chairman? "It's not the technology, it's the message that is the important thing. Clearly we've got the ability to get a message out very quickly; the centre-right dominates the blogosphere and I think we're more relaxed about understanding we can't control everything."
He is also aware of the bear traps laid in the way. "[Technology] is a two-edged sword because, as sure as eggs are eggs, my campaign will probably be dominated by candidates saying something particularly stupid on Facebook or a YouTube video of them doing something silly."
Pickles was appointed chairman in January and has found the position fits comfortably. After being leader of Bradford Metropolitan Council, he became an MP in April 1992 and developed considerable skills as a campaigning politician. He was credited with the Crewe and Nantwich byelection victory last year and is not afraid to claim that credit. He has since provided a presence as chairman that his rather anonymous predecessor Caroline Spelman lacked. He runs CCHQ alongside Andrew Feldman, the Tory chief executive and attends the daily party strategic meetings held at 4pm.
YouTube may be a potentially dangerous medium for politicians - criticising Gordon Brown's decision to appear on the videosharing site with her "YouTube if you want to" jibe helped kill off the career of Hazel Blears, a former Labour Party chairwoman - but Pickles appears to love it. His ‘War Room' videos, designed to provide a catch-up for party activists and produced as part of the WebCameron YouTube channel, show Pickles in his element as he chats to the camera, "Hello chums", and explains why he thinks the Tories are doing just great.
His mastery of this new medium is matched by his flair for onthe- ground campaigning. He has said in the past that nothing can beat it. Pickles even has his own personalised taxi, complete with a customised yellow for-hire light that reads ‘Eric', in which he drives around his Brentwood constituency.
All of this is part of a carefully constructed image, widely different to the Home Counties sheen of some of his colleagues. Does Pickles find the whole bluff northerner depiction patronising? He replies: "I've partly cultivated that myself, so I can't complain. I have described myself as unashamedly common." That also reveals the clever form of self-deprecation Pickles peppers into conversation to add to his earthy demeanour. Later, he tells Total Politics: "I don't have the talent to win the election". It reveals his effort to avoid looking like a politician shinning up the greasy pole.
The general election may be on the horizon, but Pickles is still feeling flushed from the recent local and European elections in May. All the election results, vote counts and percentages point to a Tory whipping of Labour at a local level. But what trends can we pick up from these elections that provide pointers for a general election?
Pickles picks the local election results from the south west as the most pleasing for the party. While, on a fairly negative night, the Lib Dems secured control of Bristol council, the Tory chairman is quick to point out that the results indicate that "we'd have certainly taken the parliamentary seat" in a general election.
The Euro elections look slightly disappointing on paper. The Conservatives got two more MEPs, one more in the south west region and an Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force (or UCUNF for short) MEP in Northern Ireland. Pickles went canvassing in Ballymena and claims "we are going to do well there in the general election". The chairman blames the proportional representation (PR) voting system in the Euro elections for the lack of a dramatic leap in the number of Tory MEPs. In his words: "The whole system stifles any sudden change. If it had been first-pastthe post, we'd have swept the board."
The PR system also saw two BNP MEPs elected to widespread, open-mouthed horror in Westminster, as if there had been no warnings. At a senior level, Pickles is the Conservative most often speaking about the threat of the BNP. He baldly states that "they have no possibility of taking a seat at Westminster" and his advice to councillors is: "MPs have said we should ban them - that's exactly the wrong way to deal with them. Politicians should deal with the neglect that has taken place in those communities; there are councillors who are largely ashamed of their electorate and they aren't prepared to engage them - you've got councillors daytripping to their own patch. The BNP isn't as much of a problem for us as we tend to be a lot more attentive in terms of representing people."
The BNP vote is often viewed as a protest against the ‘snouts-in-the-trough' politicians in Westminster. The expenses scandal led to a call from David Cameron for new people to apply to represent parliamentary seats for the Tories. This has led to 4,000 applications arriving at the party's HQ. If dealing with this pile of applications has caused Eric Pickles a headache, he hides it well. Are they from weirdos or other unsuitables, spotting an opportunity for attention? Pickles admits some "are less suitable than others" but adds "there are some very good people applying: doctors, community nurses, charity workers". He says the applications are arriving at the rate of 50 a day.
If that is accurate, it shows that the Conservatives are an attractive brand, but how much work did Pickles put in to ensure that brand was not contaminated, in the public's eyes, by the expenses revelations? "The switchboard was jammed in the early stages of the Telegraph stories because people expect high standards from the Tories and it wasn't until ‘Dave' did his press conference that things changed. We even had people ringing back to apologise for being aggressive. They were very impressed - to a degree we're weirdos because we are interested in politics - most people aren't. People got an opportunity to look at David Cameron for the very first time and weigh him in the balance against Gordon Brown, and they rather liked what they saw. The opinion polls reflect that."
The opinion polls might be looking rosy for the Tories, with an average poll of polls indicating a Conservative majority of 64 - to which Pickles says enthusiastically: "I'd take that" - but is the party completely united? There was speculation about Tory grandee unease over the leader's handling of the expenses row. Is it true that Cameron is happier with the younger elements of the party?
Pickles is brutally to the point: "Basically, Cameron is relaxed in a council house or in a country house. What Cameron has is empathy. I would be very surprised if these grandees had lived in a council flat in Wolverhampton. What the modern Conservative Party has to speak for is the whole electorate, and I think Cameron speaks to the whole electorate."
If speaking to a wide range of people is desirable - indeed essential - to gain electoral success, responses to the expenses saga suggested Parliament as a whole needed to drop the party political games to allow its reputation to recover. Does Pickles believe there needs to be a change in the way the party operates in these post-expenses times? The election of John Bercow as speaker seemed to reveal that the divisions between Tory and Labour were as great as ever.
Pickles is not sure about working together. He says: "I do think that sometimes people mistake consensus for being lovely but sometimes it is necessary for Parliament to test out ideas and try out different things. I don't like name-calling; I've never hated anyone on the Labour benches or the Lib Dems in my life. I hope I never do, but politics is about decisions, it's about choices and sometimes those decisions have to be hard. Don't think I want everybody to pole dance and sing Kum Ba Ya. What I do want them to do is concentrate on the important issues, and the most important issue is debt and how we manage it."
And finally, what is his message to his party's MPs for the recess? It doesn't sound like he expects MPs to take lengthy breaks. "I would say the election is starting now and now is a time to work hard locally and to connect with the electorate. By all means take a break, but be ready because we could have an autumn election".
You get the feeling that Pickles can't wait to get back to knocking on doors, and greeting potential voters. "Hello chums".