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News

Tory-Catholic relations in new low as Pickles cancels Rome trip
01 March 2014 22:00 by Catherine Pepinster

Cabinet minister Eric Pickles pulled out of attending the Consistory in Rome where Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols was created a cardinal.

His decision not to attend came just days after the archbishop forcefully criticised the Government over welfare reform, sparking speculation of a rift between the Conservative Party and the Catholic Church.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government blamed his responsibilities for flood response for his no-show at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

But when questioned asked for information about his responsibilities on 22 February, a spokeswoman blamed weather forecasts for predicting the weather wrongly last weekend.

On 5 February, Mr Pickles had praised “the terrific work the then-Archbishop of Westminster does serving the community”.

Ten days later, the [ITAL]Daily Telegraph[UNITAL] published an interview with Archbishop Nichols in which he said that the impact of the Government’s welfare reforms was “frankly a disgrace”.

As Archbishop Nichols stepped up his criticisms at a press conference, Prime Minister David Cameron intervened saying his comments were “simply not true”. Two days later Pickles announced he would not go to the Consistory.

A former official at Pickles’ department said it was likely that the anger expressed by backbench Conservative MPs over the cardinal’s remarks had an impact on the Secretary of State’s decision not to go to Rome.

Today in The Tablet, the Labour MP Frank Field, who has acted as poverty tsar for David Cameron, describes the relationship between Vincent Nichols and the Prime Minister as “war” and that Cardinal Nichols’ intervention had significantly changed the welfare debate in Britain.

The original plan was for Mr Pickles to attend the consistory with Lord Patten, a former Conservative minister and current chairman of the BBC Trust. In the event Lord Patten was accompanied by Baroness Stowell, under-secretary at the Department of Communities and Local Government – the lowest-ranking ministerial position – who replaced Eric Pickles at the last minute.

Although Cardinal Nichols gets on well with faith minister Baroness (Sayeeda) Warsi, one Whitehall lobbyist said: “The problem is that with Warsi, the Catholic bishops backed the wrong horse. She is not in charge of a spending department so she has no real clout and that’s what counts.”

Catholic bishops have also been blamed for failing to understand that ministers will listen more to criticism if meetings are arranged for constructive discussions and praise is occasionally meted out. But when the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) became the first Whitehall department to commit itself to backing the Living Wage – an initiative that fits with Catholic Social Teaching – the bishops failed to praise the DWP – the department responsible for welfare reform that Cardinal Nichols has lambasted.

A senior Catholic said: “There is a lack of interest among the Coalition in the Catholic Church. Duncan Smith has been invisible on civil-Catholic Church matters.”

Tensions between the Church and the Conservatives took a new twist this week. The Daily Mail reported that billionaire donor Michael Hintze was calling in his £2.5 million loans to the party. Mr Hintze, a Catholic, is reported to be upset by the Tories’ promotion of gay marriage.

* See Frank Field, page 6.