British Labour Politician
John Prescott was the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party from 1994 until 2007, and served under Tony Blair as the Deputy Prime Minister between 1997 and 2007.
Born John Leslie Prescott on the 31st May 1938, his father Bert was a Liverpool-born railwayman who soon afterwards lost half a leg at Dunkirk, whilst his mother came from a family of Wrexham miners. The Prescott family later became notable for winning the first prize of £1,000 in a competition to find the "most typical British family of 1951". Although he was born at Prestatyn in Wales, Prescott spent much of his childhood at Brinsworth in south Yorkshire before his family moved to Cheshire(1). Having failed the eleven plus and thus never receiving the bike his dad had promised him if he passed, he attended the Ellesmere Port Secondary Modern and left school at fifteen began work as a trainee chef. He spent the next ten years working as a steward in the Merchant Navy during which time he also became a shop steward in the National Union of Seamen. Union sponsorship enabled him to leave the Merchant Navy in 1963 and attend Ruskin College, Oxford where he gained a diploma in economics and politics, following which he won a place at Hull University where he graduated with a BSc in economics and economic history.
As a militant shop steward within the National Union of Seamen Prescott was certainly active in the national strike called on the 16th May 1966. He was just as certainly included by Harold Wilson within the "tightly-knit group of politically motivated men" (i.e. Communists) whom he blamed for the strike and which precipitated yet another sterling crisis. In fact Wilson was on the verge of naming Prescott, until it was quietly pointed out him that the man in question had previously been the unsuccessful Labour candidate for the Southport constituency. Of course such radicalism was much better received at a grass roots level, and when the veteran MP Harry Pursey announced his intention to retire, Prescott was selected in his place as the Labour Party PPC for the safe seat of Hull East. Prescott then returned to become a full time official of the National Union of Seamen in 1968, before he was duly elected at the 1970 General Election, defeating a young Conservative hopeful named Norman Lamont in the process.
The Politician 1970-1997
At the time Prescott was a follower of Tony Benn and a hard left class warrior, qualities which were not necessarily that well appreciated by the party leadership during the Wilson/Callaghan years. Life in the Labour Party changed following defeat in the 1979 General Election when the party dramatically swung to the left and Prescott joined the Shadow Cabinet as the Transport spokesman in 1979 and subsequently held a series of Shadow Cabinet posts, dealing variously with Regional Affairs, Employment and Energy. Of course like many other left-wing firebrands, defeats in the General Elections of 1983, 1987 and 1992 caused him to reconsider many of his previously held views, and by the early 1990s he had shifted some distance to the right.
Prescott's big moment came at the Labour Party Conference in 1993 when the party leader John Smith was attempting to persuade the Trade unions to surrender the block vote and accept the principle of 'one member, one vote'. At one time it seemed as if Smith would be defeated on the issue until Prescott delivered a passionate speech that persuaded a number of unions to back the proposal. Now a person of some weight in the party, it was natural that following Smith's unexpected death in 1994 he would put himself forward as a potential successor. He failed in this objective, being well beaten by a certain Tony Blair, although he subsequently received the consolation prize when he was elected deputy leader in place of the previous incumbent Margaret Beckett.
Thus began Prescott's long partnership with Tony Blair. Collectively known as 'Bambi and Thumper', Blair supplied the brains and presentational flair whilst Prescott provided the union muscle and some much needed working class credibility, becoming one of the most enthusiastic advocates of New Labour, or what Prescott liked to call "traditional values in a modern setting".
The Super Minister 1997-2001
When the Labour Party returned to government in May 1997 after an absence of eighteen years Prescott was formally appointed Deputy Prime Minister and also became the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, thus sitting at the head of a new 'super-ministry' as deemed appropriate for the second most powerful member of the government.
One of his first acts was to declare his dissatisfaction with the standard issue ministerial transport and he insisted on being provided with a Jaguar. In fact two Jaguars (presumably just in case one broke down, a not infrequent occurrence at the time) and thus earned himself the nickname of 'Two Jags'. However his own fondness for luxury cars did not prevent him from urging the public to abandon their own cars in favour of public transport, and he was thus widely ridiculed when, at the Labour conference in 1999, he used his official car to ferry himself a few hundred yards from his hotel to the conference centre. (He said it was to avoid messing up his wife Pauline's hair (2) ). This also led some journalists to recall that he had received a driving ban in 1991 for speeding, and then fined again in 1997 for the same offence.
The year 1998 was characterised by the allegation that he had used his influence to ensure the sale of former council houses cheaply to a property company that employed his son. Prescott was cleared by the subsequent internal inquiry into the matter and was later to claim that "disgruntled elements" in the local party were waging a vendetta against him. As far as the following year of 1999 was concerned,
Prescott admitted that it was a "difficult year"; the trouble was that 1998, 2000 and 2001 were also pretty difficult years as well. His attempts to develop what is fondly known as an integrated transport policy proved particularly ineffective, whilst his enthusiasm for the idea of regional assemblies for England met with little support. The one success he could claim was his role in establishing the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 1997, although many viewed his contribution as at best minor.
From Two Jags to Two Jabs
One of the lesser known aspects of Prescott's career is that he was something of an amateur boxing enthusiast in this youth and once took boxing lessons from Dom Volante, a former professional featherweight fighter. As a steward with Cunard he used to participate in amateur boxing bouts on long cruises for the entertainment of the passengers, one such passenger being Anthony Eden, who having seen a young Prescott win such a bout, sent him two bottles of beer and a large tip. Once developed, such aggressive instincts can be difficult to shake off as Prescott was to eventually demonstrate.
His first run it was at the 1998 Brit Awards ceremony when the Chumbawamba singer Danbert Nobacon decided to douse him with water. At the time Prescott looked distinctly peeved and later admitted that "For a moment it went through my mind that I would have like to put my foot on his bloody throat but the photographers would have seen it". The journalist Matthew Paris also recalls the incident when Prescott called him "a snob" and stuck his fist right up to his face. It was therefore perhaps inevitable the day would come when Prescott's fists would finally make contact with human flesh. Which brings us to the notorious Rumble in Rhyl.
During the General Election campaign of 2001, Prescott was touring the nation drumming up enthusiasm for the cause. On the 16th May 2001 he reached Rhyl in north Wales and was on his way to an engagement at the Little Theatre, when for a moment Prescott escaped from the control of his minders and decided to take a route that led him past a throng of protestors. (Comprised largely of farmers annoyed at the government's approach to hunting and the recent foot and mouth epidemic.) As he strolled passed the crowd Prescott was hit by an egg thrown by a protester named Craig Evans, and rather than retire gracefully he decided to throw a punch and hurl himself at his attacker. In truth this was probably the most exciting event of the entire campaign, helped by the fact that every second was recorded by a Sky News camera crew.
"John is John" was all that Tony Blair could find to say on the subject, whilst Prescott's were replayed on the television screens of the nation. But despite the entertainment value provided it appears that Prescott's little fracas had no effect whatsover on the public's voting intentions. The Crown Prosecution Service eventually decided that it would not be in the public interest to pursue a prosecution against either of the participants.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
The 2001 General Election largely reproduced the result of the previous election (although on a much reduced turnout). Prescott had not been quite the brightest star in the New Labour firmament, and was seen as having accomplished very little; even Tony Blair had grown tired of the long list of public relations and policy blunders that could be laid at Prescott's door. It therefore came as little surprise when his super ministry was broken up, with the most significant of his former responsibilities transfered to a new Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and placed in the hands of Stephen Byers.
In order to keep Prescott happy, Tony Blair decided to set up the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but made it part of the Cabinet Office and gave Prescott the role of "co-ordinating the government's implementation of its manifesto commitments". At the time this was widely viewed as being a sinecure and to all practical intents Prescott's political career appeared to be over. That was until the aforementioned Stephen Byers felt obliged to resign on the 28th May 2002. This triggered yet another major reshuffle of government responsibilities. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was upgraded to the status of a department in its own right and Prescott regained his former responsibilities over Local Government and the Regions. Prescott was naturally overjoyed at this turn of events, cock-a-hoop that previous media reports of his demise could now be dismissed as so much "prattle" and claimed that his new role would allow him to "support the prime minister more effectively". Not everyone was however convinced that this represented a permanent change and there was a suspicion that his new department was simply a convenient place for Blair to dump various responsibilities that no one else wanted and that it wouldn't survive the next election.
In the meantime however it did allow Prescott to return to his pet project of regional devolution, the idea that England should have its own regional assemblies. The trouble was that whilst Prescott might have been enthusiastic about the idea, no one else was. The John Prescott roadshow did its best to drum up support for the idea but when a referendum held in the North-East in 2004 resulted in such an overwhelming rejection of the idea of a regional assembly that the whole plan was quietly buried. Frustrated in this regard, Prescott busied himself with grand schemes to build large numbers of new homes in the south-east of England without necessarily worrying too much about the infrastructure needed to support such an expansion whilst simultaneously promoting his Pathfinder regeneration scheme which involved demolishing property in designated 'failing areas' largely in the North of England.
The gift of the gaffe
Prescott was notorious for being one of the most linguistically challenged politicians in the country. He was prone to the odd malapropism such as "It's great to be back on terra cotta"; as well as the odd slip of the tongue "The green belt is a Labour achievement, and we mean to build on it", however the trouble was that Prescott's linguistic difficulties went much deeper than that. This was John Prescott describing government transport policy; "We are now taking proper, putting the amount of resources and investment to move what we call extreme conditions which must now regard as normal." Alternatively he once decided to offer his views on the British press; "Well I'll tell you the puzzle, you give the kind of questions that make sexy for answer, you sell to the press who want cheap quick responses to fit them and I must say to the press they've really got to bear this in mind."
Even repeated readings of such statements fail to elicit much in the way of meaning and many a journalistic career has been built of poking fun at Prescott's linguistic manglings. Matthew Paris for one, has shown great delight in bringing the latest Prescotisms to a wider public (and hence the fist in the face incident previously referred to) whilst Simon Hoggart went so far as to write a whole book, Punchlines: A Crash Course in English with John Prescott and has observed that "Every time Prescott opens his mouth, it's like someone has flipped open his head and stuck in an egg whisk."
In his defence Prescott has claimed that "I would sooner get the words wrong than get my judgement wrong." These were mighty fine words, unfortunately there is considerable evidence that Prescott's judgement was just as faulty as his grammar.
From Two Jags to Two Shags
Following victory in the 2005 General Election, it was clear that a cabinet reshuffle was in the offing. It is said that Prescott fought tooth and nail to retain what authority he could, in the face of Blair's determination to demote him. As it turned out Prescott only lost the Local Government part of his brief to David Milliband, and the Office of the Deputy Minister survived albeit in a truncated form. Prescott might have breathed a sigh of relief since he retained at least some measure of responsibility, but history was soon to demonstrate its ability to repeat itself.
The first whiff of trouble was in December 2005 when it emerged that despite having three homes he had somehow managed to avoid personal liability for Council Tax on any of them. Prescott said the mistake was an "inadvertent error" and promised to "fully apologise" to the House of Commons (4). In the following month a staff survey found poor staff morale and a culture of bullying and harassment within the staff of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which led to some embarassing moments for Prescott when he appeared before a parliamentary committee. Worse was to come when it was revealed that for the years between 2002 to 2004 he had been conducting an affair with his diary secretary, one Tracy Temple. The story broke when her boyfriend claimed to have heard her exclaiming the words "good shag DPM" in her sleep and duly sold his story to the tabloids. At this point Ms Temple became upset at the lack of support services provided by the Civil Service in respect of staff who are conducting affairs with senior politicians and sought refuge in the hands of Max Clifford and sold her story to the papers.
Prescott countered by asserting that many of Ms Temple's recollections in the Mail on Sunday were "simply untrue" and "motivated by a desire to maximise financial gain", although he didn't specify which of Ms Temple's recollections were inaccurate (perhaps it was Tracy's claim that she had regularly performed a 'sex act' on him whilst he was sat at his office desk) and said that he was going to raise the matter with the Press Complaints Commission. As was noted at the time, it was somewhat ironic that way back in the 1990s Prescott was one of the leading critics of Conservative ministers who had extra-marital affairs. But whilst many people might have had a sneaking admiration for a sixty-eight year old man bedding a woman a quarter of a century his junior and giving "a four-times-a-night performance", subsequent revelations by Ms Temple that "Two Shags has two inches" and possessed "a manhood the size of a COCKTAIL SAUSAGE" rather undermined the image of Prescott the stud. (Historically speaking this appears to be the first time that a cabinet minister's genitalia has become the topic of public debate.)
Many were now reminded that this was not the first time that Prescott's sexual behaviour had been called into question. There was of course the incident involving a Virgin Atlantic air stewardess named Helga Forde who had complained that he had he ogled her breasts and said "lovely pair" (she was serving him fruit at the time). She later resigned when her employers refused to take the matter seriously. Following the Tracey Temple revelations, another woman named Sarah Bissett-Scott, came forward to claim that she had a two-year affair with Prescott back in the 1980s, whilst "former senior Labour aide" Tricia McDaid also claimed that she had been sexually harassed by him in 1993 and described him as "a serial groper". Indeed Ms McDaid's claim was only one of a number of similar tales that have circulated for some time regarding the tendency of Prescott's hands to wander at various Labour Party functions over the years, during which he seems to have taken to heart Nicholas Fairburn's famous dictum "what is a skirt but an open gateway".
From Two Shags to No Job
The Labour Party performed rather poorly at the local elections in May 2006, and amongst the contributory factors cited for this result was Prescott's behaviour. (It also didn't help that allegations surfaced on the 1st May that Prescott has used government cars to ferry Tracey Temple about London for their assignations.) To no one's surprise in the resulting cabinet reshuffle the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was abolished and its responsibilities shared out. But despite having no job Prescott retained his official position as Deputy Prime Minister, with his £134,000 a year salary together with his 'grace-and-favour' residences (comprising of a flat at Admiralty Arch and a country house at Dorneywood in Buckinghamshire) plus of course his chauffeur driven Jaguars. The official line from Number 10 was that Prescott had been asked to "chair a number of major Cabinet Committees and to oversee the efficient development of Government policy. He also asked him to continue with his international work particularly with regard to China and Eastern Europe, and, in recognition of his work in delivering the Kyoto Treaty, to work with the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for the Environment on developing the post Kyoto agenda."
However not everyone was however impressed by the idea that Prescott should be paid a six figure sum for chairing the odd committee; 'Prezza is screwing us all' as The Sun so delightfully put it. The Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, drew the Prime Minister's attention to the fact that if he was "looking for ways to cut waste in government, you can start with John Prescott." Although his fellow Conservative John Maples noted that in the context of Prescott's "nine years of unremitting incompetence", perhaps it was "better to pay the deputy prime minister for not running a department than running one".
Now derided as 'No Job' Prescott, the jibes exact mirrored those that had been made back in 2001, when the Conservatives took a similar delight in poking fun at his new role, suggesting that he had few (if any) genuine duties. The difference this time round was that the Conservative were joined in their complaints by a chorus of disapproval from within his own party. Particularly from women Labour MPs who felt that the revelation regarding his alleged groping activities rendered him unsuitable to hold high office within the modern Labour Party. For a short while Prescott was able to shrug off his detractors, but the crunch came when a photograph appeared in The Daily Mirror which pictured him playing croquet at his Dorneywood estate. Now it might seem strange that it would matter that a politician spent his leisure hours knocking wooden balls around a patch of lawn, but in Britain croquet is seen as a 'toffs' game and not something that true sons of the working class engage in. By the end of May announced that he was giving up Dorneywood, a sacrifice which appeared to satisfy his critics, or those within his own party at least.
And yet more scandal
No sooner had Prescott shrugged off the croquet fiasco, he was beset by a further round of revelations. Firstly in July 2006 it emerged that his office had given planning permission for Brighton FC to build a new £50 million stadium on the outskirts of the city. In error as it happens, as they'd misread the local plan, and questions were soon raised regarding Prescott's links to Derek Chapman, a director of both the club and the construction company that hoped to get the contract to build the stadium.
More serious however was the so-called 'Domegate' affair which featured the revelation that he had spent two nights at the 32,000-acre Colorado ranch belonging to Philip Anschutz, an American billionaire whose Anschutz Entertainment Group is amongst those bidding to open one of Britain's new super casinos at the Millennium Dome. Prescott had apparently neglected to declare this hospitality or make any mention of the white Stetson hat, calf-length cowboy boots with spurs, a pair of blue jeans, a leather notebook and a belt with a silver buckle engraved with his initials, worth a total of $1,354 which he apparently wore while touring the ranch on horseback. Prescott denied that he had any discussions with Mr Anschutz regarding his proposed casino business in the United Kingdom, although he later said that it might have been "mentioned".
On the 30th July Scotland Yard confirmed that it was examining an allegation that Mr Prescott might have breached anti-corruption laws, although by the 27th September the combined might of Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service and concluded that there was "not sufficient basis" for a criminal inquiry. In August 2006 the issue of his relationship with his son Johnathan Prescott and his company, Estate Partnerships, once again resurfaced, although once again there was no unequivocal evidence of any wrongdoing.
"What is John Prescott for?"
This is a question which has challenged many over the years and for
which it is difficult to find a satisfactory answer. Having demonstrated again and again his inability to organise so much as the proverbial drunken orgy in a brewery, Prescott's dismal performance as a minister was unparalled in modern British politics.
In the beginning it was quite simple; Blair was the university educated brains and Prescott the working class tough who provided the union muscle. Prescott's usefulness has however diminished over the years. In June 2002 John Prescott resigned from the RMT (3) following its decision to withdraw its financial support to his Hull East constituency party and was later to be found taking a leading role in defeating the Fire Brigades Union strike of 2003. All of which rather dented his reputation amongst the trades unions, and his political value. In any case Prescott's working class credentials are somewhat contrived; his father was really part of British Rail management and his background might more accurately described as being lower middle class, (even Prescott once admitted that his parents had "a middle class income") whilst his 'class consciousness' is simply the product of years spent as a Cunard steward waiting on the cream of the British upper class which has left him with a massive chip on both shoulders.
Some argued that is main role was acting as as go-between the opposing Blair and Brown factions within the Party, whilst others have suggested that the reason why Prescott was Deputy Prime Minister was simply that he posed no threat whatsover to Blair's own position, and made him look statesmanlike by comparison.
Of course the Conservative Party have been taking the piss out of Prescott for years, witness the cry of Nicholas Soames "Mine's a gin and tonic, Giovanni, and would you ask my friend what he's having?", whilst when he took over his super-ministry in 1997 Norman Fowler accused him of being "the only minister with a job title bigger than his vocabulary". The Tracy Temple affair simply gave them more material to play with, and further reduced his standing to the extent that David Davies could bluntly describe him as a "laughing stock". Even those within his own party have been known to hint that this is a man not to be taken that seriously, as Tony Blair once addressed a Labour conference with the words "Would I need a bloke with a stick and a pig's bladder when I have John Prescott?"
It was noticeable that whilst Tony Blair was away on holiday in the summer of 2006 and the crisis over the alleged plot to blow up transatlantic air flights emerged, that it was the Home Secretary John Reid who came forward as the government's spokesman, whilst the so-called Deputy Prime Minister was nowhere to be seen. This might explain why it has been suggested by some that Prescott has never quite been as supportive of the New Labour project as he publicly claimed to be, and that in fact he was more of a Brownite and a Blairite. It was rumoured that Prescott was amongst those who badgered Blair to name the date on which he would resign, and envisaged an "orderly transition of power" during which he would hold onto the deputy leadership. The steady stream of scandal put paid to such ideas and became clear that when Blair resigned, Prescott would be obliged to leave as well. At the Labour Party conference in September 2006 Prescott confirmed that he would stand down as Labour's deputy leader as and when Tony Blair resigned, and also took the opportunity to apologise to the Party for letting everyone down over the past year, and told them that he just wanted "to say sorry".
The final chapter
After another poor set of local election results in May 2007, Tony Blair finally confirmed that he was stepping down as both party leader and Prime Minister, and on the 27th June 1987 handed in his resignation at Buckingham Palace; as promised Prescott put in his resignation as well. In the meantime he was taken ill shortly after his sixty-ninth birthday and admitted to the University College Hospital in London. Diagnosed as suffering from pneumonia he was transferred to the high-dependency unit but survived the experience to make his farwell appearance as Deputy Prime Minister in the House of Commons on the 20th June. True to form, at one point Prescott spoke of David Cameron who had described him "as a cross between Ernie Bevin and Dame Osthenes". This caused much head scratching amongst listeners until they realised that he meant Demosthenes. As William Hague put it "politics will be dramatically less entertaining" now that Prescott had left government.
However unlike Blair, Prescott confirmed that he would stay on as a Member of Parliament, and on the 4th July he announced his intention to become a British representative to the Council of Europe. This annoyed a number of his fellow Labour MPs who thought it might be their turn on this exciting role, some of whom noted that Prescott had already had one stint on the council before between 1972 and 1975.
The recent publication of Alistair Campbell's diaries The Blair Years' revealed that in 2003 senior civil servants had set out plans for a caretaker government led by John Prescott in the event of Blair losing the vote over the Iraq War.
(1) And oddly enough, despite being born in Wales of a Welsh mother, Prescott regards himself as a Yorkshireman.
(2) Of course Pauline Prescott favours the kind of architectural constructed hair style that went out of fashion in 1967, and it is clear that nothing less than a direct hit from a RPG would be required to dislodge a single hair on her head.
(3) The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) was formed in 1990 by the merger of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) and the National Union of Seamen (NUS). The RMT was unhappy because it wanted the entire rail network re-nationalised, and was disappointed that the Labour government failed to do so, particularly with one of its own sons in charge of Transport.
(4) Since it is often the case that British politicians have a London home in addition to their constituency home, it has been a generally accepted principle that they can claim costs relating to their London home as a parliamentary expense, whilst personally coughing up for the Council Tax on their actual home, just like the rest of the population.
Compiled from a variety of news sources but see;
- Matthew Paris and Kevin Maguire Great Parliamentary Scandals(Revised edition, Chrysalis, 2004)
- John Leslie Prescott
- Profile: John Prescott, 30 May 2006
- John Prescott's gift of the gaffe, 6 June, 2003
- Prescott angry at lover's claims, 30 April 2006
- Stephen Moyes, John Prescott Exclusive: My Two Year Affair
- Prescott delights in new role 29 May, 2002,
- Nick Assinder The rebirth of John Prescott 30 May, 2002,
- Political profile 22 October, 2002,
- Prescott admits to 'difficult' year 19 December, 1999,
- Neil Syson, Two Shags has two inches
- Catherine Macleod, We prepared for new PM… Prescott