Parliament: The Sketch: Driver Prescott makes Toad of Toad Hall look safety-conscious

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The Independent Online
JOHN PRESCOTT'S nickname "Two Jags" isn't quite right. True, he owns two of them but the model doesn't really match his parliamentary style - it's far too sleek to fit his more robust, off-road virtues. If Mr Prescott is any kind of car, then he's surely one of those high- torque four-wheel drives, bull-bars up front and a comical spare-wheel cover behind, depicting fornicating rhinos.

On the face of it he was covering tricky terrain yesterday, since 50 Labour MPs had signed a hostile amendment to the Government's Transport Bill, opposing the part privatisation of the National Air Traffic Service. What's more, his Tory opponent John Redwood was back on form after last week's flu-logged performance and in the interim at least some of Mr Prescott's responsibilities had been passed on to Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, in what the Opposition was sure to represent as a demotion. But, despite these hazards, Mr Prescott appeared serene and insulated - as if he were elevated a few feet above the usual driving position.

The driving style was pretty familiar though; foot to the floor and only stop if you absolutely have to. He clearly carries a bumper sticker reading "I don't brake for idiots", screeching past one attempted Tory intervention with the explanation that "I've never known a common-sense intervention from the Honourable Member in the past. I have no desire to give way."

A little later Michael Portillo stuck his thumb out in an attempt to get the Transport Secretary to slow down and wasn't even offered the grace of an explanation. Mr Prescott sailed straight past again, waving a derisory hand in Mr Portillo's direction.

Indeed there was something almost impressive about the way in which Mr Prescott didn't even twitch when an obstacle appeared in his path. Most drivers would nervously dab at the brakes through instinct alone, but the Deputy Prime Minister simply presses harder on the accelerator. On those occasions when the ground got a bit boggy he shifted into four-wheel- drive and ploughed on regardless. Trying to address Bernard Jenkin at one point he forgot his opponent's constituency and lost traction completely, wheels spinning as he tried to remember. Mr Jenkin was in no hurry to help him out. So Mr Prescott simply gave up: "You know... Jenkin," he said chuckling, "that fellow over there."

Just a little later he hit a patch of verbal black ice (terrifyingly prevalent on his routes) assuring the house that "safety is now safer than it was before". Tory members guffawed as conspicuously as they could in the hope that Mr Prescott would go into an irrecoverable skid. But he grappled briefly with the wheel and powered out of it. Innocent questions didn't stand a chance. Mr Jenkin asked rather a sharp one, about why the Bill contained provisions allowing Mr Prescott to dispense with the government's golden share in air traffic control, but Mr Prescott's brake-lights didn't wink once. "Whoosh!" he was past and gone and Tory members were left pointing furiously at a question-shaped smear on the tarmac.

Mr Redwood is less vehicular, though his vocal style can be oddly reminiscent of those boy-racers who sit at traffic lights, pulsing the engine aggressively between idle and screaming crescendo. "TEN! crucial questions," he said yesterday. "I will continue to ask them until I DRAG! an answer from this MISERABLE! minister."

Occasionally one fears for the engine. Denouncing safety measures for New Year's Eve, intended to prevent gridlock in London and catastrophes in crowded Tube stations, his rev counter went screaming past the red line. "This is like Moscow in 1960 not Britain in the year 2000!" he shrieked. Labour MPs yelled at him to ease up before he blew a gasket, but Mr Prescott just smiled. He could hear something apart from the in-car entertainment system and the soothing hum of the heater, but whatever, it would soon be miles behind him.