John Prescott: Call me Al - why our answer to Gore is hitting the road

Former Deputy Prime Minister tells Michael McCarthy about his school lecture tour
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The Independent Online

As reinventions go, it's pretty good. The country knows him fondly as "Two Jags", or simply "Prezza", the beefy, brawling, language- mangling ex-shop steward who was at the heart of New Labour, but also kept the beer-and-sandwiches spirit of Old Labour alive and well. Now John Prescott is becoming Britain's answer to Al Gore, America's man with a mission about climate change.

From the middle of this month, the former Deputy Prime Minister, out of office since Gordon Brown took over as premier in 1997, will be touring British schools to lecture on the threat of global warming, in the way Vice-President Gore set off around America to speak the "inconvenient truth" on climate change after he lost office himself.

Starting with a talk to the pupils of the Globe Academy in Elephant and Castle, south London, on 21 September, Mr Prescott will move on to schools in Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, with a specific message – the crucial importance of the UN climate meeting in Copenhagen in December, where the world community will seek a new deal to combat global warming.

He knows all about such agreements, as he was a key player in negotiating the last one, the Kyoto Protocol, which was stitched together, with Mr Prescott wielding the needle, at the very end of the meeting in the Japanese city in 1997.

He will be carrying the message on behalf of the Council of Europe, Europe's oldest supranational body, which is holding is own "Road to Copenhagen" climate change conference in Strasbourg later this month to boost support for an agreement across the continent, and which has appointed Mr Prescott as its rapporteur, or special representative, for climate change.

It is a new role, and a new identity, that Mr Prescott relishes but his reinvention goes deeper than that. For in the last few months, at the age of 71, the Old Warhorse has enthusiastically embraced new media in all their forms. Forget Two Jags, the moniker the nation bestowed on him for his ostentatious possession of a pair of Jaguar saloons. Think Twitter.

Astonishing as it may seem to some, the one-time stalwart of the smoke-filled committee room is now devoting himself – with the help of his son, David, which he readily admits – to blogging, video blogging, appearing on YouTube, running his Facebook social networking site and becoming a leading exponent of the micro-blogging and mini-messaging that Twitter makes possible.

He has nearly 6,500 followers and has sent more than 550 tweets since he began. Some of them have made headlines – his aggressive tweeting about the row over the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan's attack on the NHS saw Prescott using the twitter "hash tag" (a way for tweeters to search for common topics) "We love the NHS".

Now he is pushing another hash tag, "We love the BBC", after the attack on the Corporation last week from Rupert Murdoch's son, James. At 3pm yesterday, for example, he sent this: "In China and just heard #welovethebbc is trending. Here's my reason which I tweeted on Sunday Keep it up #welovethebbc."

In the past, of course, a Prescott message would have been more like: "I cannot agree with the compositing of the resolution until I have consulted my full executive."

Blackberry mobile communicator in hand, Mr Prescott is in China to give a lecture on "The Road to Copenhagen and the implications and opportunities for China", at the University of Xiamen, where he has been appointed an honorary professor – yet another side to his reinvention.

He is convinced the use of new media is a key way to reach out to young people who may be bored by conventional politics, and that it is vital to reach them over the issue of climate change.

"There won't be any party politics in it," he said of his forthcoming schools tour. "The essential message is this: the decision taken at Copenhagen will be the most important decision affecting your lives, so understand it and participate.

"Children have a powerful influence on their parents and they are more sensitive about the environment than their parents are, and an important force in wanting change. And, of course, they will be the politicians of the future."

Still 'Two Jags': Why Prescott is keeping his gas-guzzlers

He might have reinvented himself, and he is campaigning for radical cuts in carbon emissions to make a new climate deal, but on one issue Two Jags remains resolutely unreconstructed: his two Jags.

Mr Prescott still keeps his two beloved Jaguars, which are 10 and 15 years old – one in London and one in his constituency home in Hull. He sees no reason to do without them. He is quite unrepentant, and can see no contradiction between owning such symbolically egregious gas-guzzlers and the need to cut back on CO2.

"They hardly get used," he said. "I travel about 30,000 miles a year but 90 per cent of that is on the railway. I don't use the cars very often, but I keep them because, well, it's just a feeling I've always had about Jaguars."

What about his carbon footprint? "I think it's a good carbon footprint I've got," he said. "I've changed the boilers, I've done the insulation, I'm water-metered and I'm now getting the solar panels. When I fly abroad I make the bloody carbon compensation for it. I've always done that since we've been in government and I've just continued it. So I think my carbon, if anybody wants to measure it, is quite good. They won't get much carbon out from the cars because they're not used very often."

He went on: "Seemingly this is a kind of rationalisation for me for keeping a boys' toy if you want, but if you actually bought a new car, what's the carbon output of a new car? It can be measured. If you have a car that's bought when it's about six or seven years old, and you keep it for 10 years and don't use it, what's the carbon output of that? Aren't I on a renewable policy? ( hearty laughter)

"And one's 15 years [old], so my carbon output is a lot less than the new cars running around, which are bought and replaced every couple of years. ( More laughter, continuing as the interviewer left.)

Michael McCarthy