Profile: John Prescott: Class warrior at bay

Profile: John Prescott by Steve Richards
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The Independent Culture
It was a rail journey from London to Blackpool that did it. If you had to pinpoint a moment when John Prescott's honeymoon in government came to a halt, it was when the Virgin train carrying political journalists, MPs and activists to the Labour Party conference took much of the day to travel from Euston to Blackpool. "The privatised railways are a national disgrace," Prescott declared when the demented travellers finally arrived at the seaside resort. He forgot to add that there was not a lot he would be able to do about it.

That long, squalid, overpriced train journey propelled transport, for a long time a sleeping issue, well up the political agenda. Ever since, the media and politicians have highlighted the appalling state of transport in Britain. And in the next breath they have asked; "What the heck is Prescott doing about it?"

This is not a question posed by troublemaking journalists alone. Labour MPs are asking it. So, too, discreetly, is Downing Street. The Blair-Prescott relationship survived with ease the scrapping of Clause Four, the rise and fall of Peter Mandelson and Prescott's occasional marginalisation over policy issues. But there are now some real tensions over the policy area of transport and, to a lesser, extent, the regional agenda being followed by Prescott's grandly named Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

The word from Downing Street sources is that Tony Blair has not been impressed by the policies emerging from Prescott's fiefdom. But relations have become chilly on both sides. Prescott is hardly thrilled either; his ideas for improving transport have been delayed, blocked or kicked into the long grass. Now he is getting the blame for not doing enough.

Before the stuttering privatised Virgin train to Blackpool became a symbol of a wider malaise, Prescott had been seen as one of the Government's stars. While Cook feuded with Brown, who could not stand Mandelson, who was not speaking to Whelan, Prescott seemed above the fray. Unlike the New Labour schemers, he had a job to do and was getting on with it. Press cuttings on his first year are almost universally favourable, the flattering profiles complemented by reports on a seemingly never-ending series of initiatives.

Prescott came into government with a clear sense of priorities. Before the election, New Labour's programme appeared more coherent than it really was. The Blairites wanted to win, rather than get bogged down in detail. But Prescott has always been much more interested in the formation of policy than its presentation. In opposition during the 1980s he came out with more adventurous policies than most of the "modernisers" - heralding public-private finance initiatives for transport, seeking ways of raising standards in local government and promoting devolution to the English regions. In policy terms, Prescott was pioneering a Third Way long before the phrase had been invented.

Blair, who until recently was not especially interested in any of the areas which had gripped Prescott, gave his deputy what appeared to be a golden prize after the election. Prescott got a department which spanned all his interests, became the chair of several cabinet committees, and retained a primary role in Labour party matters. His loyalty to the Blair project had been amply rewarded.

Indeed, his public support for Blair before and since the election has been unswerving, although there have been times when, with justification, he has felt isolated. A year before the election friends would ask him about his role in the campaign. Despairingly he declared, "I don't know. You tell me. You'll know before I hear anything." Since the election Blair has been at pains to consult him regularly, but over the war in Kosovo, Europe and some big economic policy areas, the Deputy Prime Minister has been a marginal figure.

But Blair has not pushed his luck too far. He has followed John Smith's sensitive approach to Prescott, giving him political room to breathe. Prescott had a terrible relationship with Neil Kinnock, who saw him as little more than an awkward liability. Privately, Prescott could not hide his fury. Many a Westminster restaurant resounded to the words "F-ing Kinnock" when Prescott was one of the diners.

In contrast, he spoke with great warmth and affection about John Smith, who allowed Prescott to tour the broadcasting studios, voicing his disapproval of the "beautiful people" in the shadow cabinet. Famously, Prescott displayed his support for Smith when he made his conference speech in favour of the "one member one vote" reforms in 1993. Smith would probably have won the vote anyway, but Prescott's rousing words established his unique position as someone who could stir the passions of the party while remaining loyal to the leadership. He has been in that role ever since.

After Labour's disastrous performance in the recent Euro elections generated doubts about the core vote, this role is as important as ever. Traditional supporters and trade union leaders trust Prescott more than any other cabinet minister. Blair cannot afford to lose his Deputy. In spite of the criticisms about Prescott's transport policy, he will not be moved in this summer's cabinet reshuffle, nor will his department, which some ministers view as too unwieldy, be broken up.

So why has Prescott been looking more harassed than at any time since the election? One factor has absolutely nothing to do with his battles over policy. Prescott was deeply shaken by the mockery which greeted his performance as Blair's stand-in at Prime Minister's Question Time two months ago. It was the most damaging and confidence-shattering half-hour of his political career. In 30 minutes he gave the right answers to the wrong questions, mispronounced the names of foreign leaders and seemed not to know about the politically explosive European withholding tax.

To be laughed at in public is always an humiliating experience . But Prescott's performance sent out a wider signal, that the Deputy Prime Minister did not have a grasp of policy. Given Prescott's interest in policy this was unfair. But there was an even wider message: if Blair fell under a bus tomorrow, his Deputy would not be up to the job. In the first year of the Labour Government, when Brown was falling out with colleagues, Prescott was spoken of as the likely successor by many Labour MPs in a "Blair under a bus" scenario. Despite a much more competent performance standing in for Blair at PMQs this week, such speculation has ceased.

The mockery reinforced the snobbery he has endured for many years. Parliamentary sketch writers never miss the opportunity to lampoon Prescottian syntax and his inability to construct a grammatical sentence. In the past Prescott has been able to pretend, at least, to share the joke, particularly as the teasing often followed political triumphs such as his unconventional OMOV speech in 1993. Now it was following what he himself would admit was an inept performance. Since then some of those close to Prescott have spoken of his wider disillusionment with politics.

Prescott has reached the top of politics without an extensive education. He failed the eleven plus and left school at 15, with no qualifications, to become a steward on luxury sea liners. His life was transformed later by his time at Ruskin College, Oxford, of which he speaks movingly: "I remember our first lecture, all the middle-class guys turned out in their revolutionary gear, we turned up in our suits. But I tell you Ruskin opened my eyes, opened my mind. I owe most of my life to Ruskin".

Behind Prescott's familiar bravado there is shyness and insecurity. To place these characteristics in an unsentimental political context, they have meant that too often he has failed to stand up to other heavyweights in the cabinet. Blair and Brown have left their fingerprints all over the policy priorities from his supposedly mighty department.

Last summer he lost his fight to have the bill for a Strategic Rail Authority included in the Queen's Speech. Blair convinced him that other bills deserved priority, that his department was having its fair share of legislation and that a "shadow" strategic authority could be set up in the meantime. The legislative gap has now left Prescott without an important fig leaf. Like the Virgin train to Blackpool, it has become an embarrassing symbol of a government that talks a lot about transport, but is not doing much.

But Prescott's close friends are not focusing their fire on Blair, with whom they insist there is a constructive and mutually supportive relationship. However, when asked about relations between Prescott and Downing Street, an ally said, "It depends what you mean by Downing Street: Number 10 or Number 11." Prescott has had a turbulent relationship with Gordon Brown. In the deputy leadership election in 1994, Brown voted for Margaret Beckett, rather than for Prescott. And in opposition, Prescott made the case for a powerful Whitehall department to stand up against the Treasury.

There was a period, early in government, when relations improved considerably. Prescott's interests in involving the private sector chimed with Brown's desire not to spend much additional public money on transport. Now tensions are high again. Prescott wants to ensure that every penny raised from charging schemes on motorists is spent on transport. Following the Treasury's traditional opposition to hypothecation, or earmarking tax revenues, Brown insists on some flexibility as to how the cash is spent. Brown has been getting his way. The Treasury is also insisting that it keeps a firm lid on local government spending, limiting the scope for devolution of power to councils, another of Prescott's interests.

As Deputy PM and the politician with an indispensable rapport with his party, Prescott could flex his muscles more. Paradoxically, the very strength of his political position underlines how weak at times he has been.

But the case against Prescott is mitigated by a political context that has gone largely unreported. On several fronts, Prescott has been fighting lonely battles. The other big hitters, David Blunkett and Jack Straw, have been swimming with the Blairite and Treasury tides. On Prescott's plans for regional development, an ally confides: "We knew we would have the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Employment against us because they feel threatened. We didn't realise we would face the opposition of the whole bloody cabinet". In addition, the other big guns certainly did not want to upset the middle-England car lover.

Against such an unpromising background, Prescott has established the radical principle that money raised from congestion charging should be spent largely on transport. Regional Development Agencies have been introduced. The London Underground's Jubilee line extension is making progress, and an integrated Tranpsort Bill will be published next week. Prescott has also been the leading opponent of electoral reform and of closer ties with the Liberal Democrats. At the moment his camp is winning.

However, mitigating circumstances offer no comfort to voters waiting for trains or stuck in traffic jams. The London Underground, for which Prescott is directly responsible, is mostly a shambles, and the public- private finance plan to provide more investment is behind schedule. The bold scheme for congestion charging, like toll charging, will be confined, on the instructions of Downing Street, to experimental areas until the next election is safely over. Regional Assemblies have become another area marked "Second term - if you're lucky".

Prescott has marked out an innovative route but, like his privatised trains, is travelling along it far too slowly. Politically, he is in a stronger position to stand up to wary ministers than he realises. The stakes are too high for this decent, temperamental politician to become styled, at best, the Secretary of State for the Second Term.

Steve Richards is Political Editor of the `New Statesman'

Life Story

Born: John Leslie Prescott, 31 May, 1938, in the front bedroom of a seaside bungalow named "Wendover" in Prestatyn, north Wales. Brought up in south Yorkshire and Merseyside.

Family: Father: John Herbert, railway signalman. Mother: Phyllis, in domestic service. They later divorced. Brothers: Adrian, Raymond. Sisters: Dawn and Vivian.

Married: In 1961 to Pauline, a hairdresser at Quaintways store, Chester. Two sons: Jonathon (b 1963) and David (b 1970).

Education: Ellesmere Port Secondary Modern School; mature student at Ruskin College Oxford and at Hull University.

Career: Steward, Merchant Navy, 1955-63; National Union of Seamen official 1968-70.

Political career: MP for Hull East since 1970. Leader, Labour group in the European Assembly 1976-79. Shadow cabinet member 1983-1997. Elected Deputy Labour Leader, 1994.

Strange allure: New Zealand poet Fleur Adcock wrote some words of love to him: "Our eyes had locked/and we were leaning avidly forwards/lips out-thrust, certain protruberances/ under our clothing brushing each other..."

He says: "I no longer keep the coal in the bath. I keep it in the bidet."

Pauline says: "He has always been swimming against the tide"