The strategy amounts to nothing less than a human shield strategy. "If you make us cut," they say, "then we'll turn off street lights, or sack lollipop men" (both real examples). Of course, the risk falls upon school kids crossing the road unaided, or single women making their way home at night. When locals are angry, the councils will say: blame the government and their wicked cuts.
Will it work? There is something in the saying that all politics is local. People get angrier that their local lollipop man has been whacked than they would over, say, defence cuts. It affects them directly. Also Thatcher's attempts to target local government waste led to the poll tax – she wanted a small charge to be paid by all, and it turned into a big charge. The uproar was, for her, the beginning of the end. Ken Baker was defied over school reform by local authorities. They are, undeniably, a force to be reckoned with.
But Pickles and Shapps have something Thatcher never did: documented proof of local authority waste. Thanks to the pioneering work of the Taxpayers' Alliance, with their FoI requests and Town Hall Rich List (pdf), we know how much waste there is. We know that the councils have £billions worth of fat to cut, before they take an axe to the lollipop man. The MPs' expenses showed us the scale of public anger towards the abuse of public funds.
Next month, all councils will be forced to detail any expense over £500. A strong local press will, hopefully, scrutinise this. And when the councils say they have no choice but to turn off street lamps, locals will see that it ain't so. This assumes, of course, local newspapers with enough reporters. Local papers are in bad health in Britain, and many councils even put out their own taxpayer-funded alternatives.
The cuts should come in the financial year starting 5 April. Pickles and Shapps are not using Thatcher's unduly combative style. Shapps praises councils as being integral to a local community, and says how he wants to give them more powers. With charm and ammo, I think it's a battle the government will win - even when the councils play dirty. Next year will tell.