John Prescott: 'I love coming to Tories' seats and roughing them up ... that is what elections are about'

The Monday Interview: The Deputy Prime Minister
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The Independent Online

On board the Prescott Express, John Prescott agreed that launching his campaign tour of Britain in Michael Howard's Folkestone and Hythe constituency was provocative.

On board the Prescott Express, John Prescott agreed that launching his campaign tour of Britain in Michael Howard's Folkestone and Hythe constituency was provocative.

"I love a fight," he said, and he clearly meant it. "I love coming out to Tories' seats and roughing them up a bit. That is what elections are all about." Aides remembering the famous punch at the egg-thrower at the last election hope he does not mean it literally.

Relaxing on the red leather bench-seats in the conference area at the back of his battlebus, Mr Prescott admitted that Iraq was proving a problem in getting Labour supporters to vote.

"In the 1997 election, they could not wait to get out and vote, because they knew what they wanted to get rid of. When you have been eight years in government, there is always something people aren't happy with," he said.

"Governments are never loved, I think on the main they think it's been a good government but they are concerned particularly about Iraq."

The battle bus may be sneered at by some but it does enable Mr Prescott to bring his personal charisma to what another deputy prime minister, Willie Whitelaw, used to call it "stirring up apathy" across the country.

He is the last of the big political beasts to use the battle bus. His staff are adamant that their silver single-decker is "at the cutting edge of technology", equipped with satellite television, faxes, and a non-stop coffee-making machine. "It's traditional campaigning in a modern setting," said an aide.

Since the "punch" tour of 2001, the Deputy Prime Minister, 66, and his rolling road show is now something of a national institution. Van drivers overtook on the motorway, merrily sounding their horns.

Getting the team back together for the third election tour was like reforming a band. Backing the veteran showman on board are Sue, the bus manager; Bev his former political press adviser, who has taken time off from a charity to handle the media; Joan, his political adviser; and Neil, in real life a screenplay writer who writes a daily weblog of the tour. "It's a bit like the Blues Brothers movie, getting the band back together," said one.

This is undoubtedly the last of his campaign tours as DPM. However, those who point to his age, saying he is ready to quit immediately after the election and head for the Lords, are wrong. Mr Prescott was elected with Tony Blair by the party. He has booked his ticket for the full term with Mr Blair.

In Folkestone, he toured a new £1.2m, 79-place nursery and 12-place creche with its own nurse practitioner. He chatted to mothers and cuddled children to show he has a softer side, in spite of the public image of the street fighter, and joked: "I hear you've been talking about Jamie Oliver's school dinners. Are chips out?" Pointing at his paunch, he added: "I'm a chip man. I'm too far gone to stop now."

In fact, since being diagnosed with diabetes just before the last election, he is careful what he eats. Relaxing over a snack of sandwiches and hot mushroom soup, Mr Prescott said Mr Blair's leadership is an election issue. "They have put a lot of faith into Tony Blair. To be honest we would not have got the result we got in those two elections without the identity of Tony Blair.

"It is one of the things you have to be conscious of and be aware of it. This is a man who has made a lot of difficult decisions. He doesn't funk them. Therefore Iraq is one that caused a lot of people concern and that can be seen in polls."

Mr Prescott ranks the Blair administration alongside the reforming Attlee government in spite of the appearance of less Cabinet debate. "Attlee had to have a group of ministers to keep him alive. That has not been the case with Blair and he has gone through a massive change period. All this traditional values in a modern setting, that I tend to shout about, he has gone through that.

"Some people said that Cabinet meetings only last for a few hours, compared to years ago when they met for days. They did so because they were fighting over public expenditure cuts, the IMF, rising unemployment. They spent so long in Cabinet because they were divided. We have a Cabinet that is pretty well united on the direction of policies. It's got its mumbles and its grumbles. I've got some like everybody else. It hasn't got fundamental splits. Few other governments produce the level of employment, economic prosperity and social justice. People don't laugh if you say that. It's true."

One of Mr Prescott's big selling pitches on the stump is the full employment Gordon Brown has brought to Britain. That claim has been dented by the Rover collapse. He was campaigning yesterday in Shipley, Yorkshire, with the Chancellor, and is very pleased that Mr Brown and Mr Blair are working together once more at the heart of the campaign.

Mr Prescott has hosted their meetings about the succession, which has caused the tensions, and clearly feels relieved. He said: "I am really pleased to see them up front, now they are both to the fore. They are a powerful combination. We have got the most successful Chancellor this country has seen and a leader presenting the party with the possibility of an historic third term.

"The Tories know they can't win on the economy, so their campaign - obviously advised by the Australian [Lynton Crosby] - is to be nasty on some populist issues."

Yesterday, as Michael Howard prepared to launch a fresh attack on immigration, Mr Prescott said: "The Gypsies are a classic example. The Independent editorial was the only one that was reasonably fair about it. Howard took the rights away from them. He has a cheek when he comes back and says this is a real problem and that they are treated differently.

"It's difficult to deal with those populist things, but governments have to watch that they are doing right by all their people.

"Is it right to focus on asylum?" he asks himself the rhetorical question. "It's a legitimate subject. If you suggest they are from eastern Europe, that people are a threat to our way of life, or they would rape your daughter, I think once you get into that you are playing to the worst fears of people."

He is unrepentant about Labour's introduction of postal ballots for all voters, in spite of the attack by a judge over the fraud by some Birmingham councillors. "Postal ballots were necessary for people like me who were seamen, otherwise we would not have had a vote. It was changed in 2000 from people who needed a postal vote for their jobs or for medical reasons to everybody. It was recommended by the Electoral Commission and the rules were endorsed by all three parties."

This week's manifesto launch will heighten the campaigns. It was on the day the manifesto was launched that the farmer known on the Prescott bus as "Mullet Man" - his hairstyle - threw his egg.

The fight this time could be with Labour's left. Mr Prescott, as an old trade union negotiator, is happy that the manifesto contains the so-called Warwick agreement he helped to thrash out with unions, including a guarantee of an extra eight days' annual leave for bank holidays to more than 3 million workers.

Some old Labour supporters will demand more radical policies, including the renationalisation of the railways, and a return to council house building.

"I don't think the electorate think it's the big issue but, in our movement, there will be people who take different views. We have to deal with it in a positive way. It's almost an impossible demand. There should not be an argument about whether you should have public ownership or not. To me the argument is over whether you are prepared to spend the billions paying out compensation for a railway system when it could be used on health and education.

"Some say we should spend more on council housing. I say we have spent £20bn so far, and £8bn has come from the private sector. That means I am able to meet my manifesto programme of 2 million homes to be made decent by 2010. If I had relied solely on getting that out of the Treasury I would not have got so much money."

He is prepared to take on the old left over the manifesto commitment to extend home ownership to more first-time buyers."When we came in it was an argument between private and public housing. You only had to drive down the street to know which was which.

"It's like class in this country. You can walk down the street and see who's working class and who's middle class. It's in the way we drive, the way we are, the way we dress. I am not getting back into whether I am middle class - clearly I am!" He laughs heartily.


Born: 31 May 1938, Prestatyn, north Wales

Family: Married Pauline Tilston in 1961 and has two sons

Educated: Ellesmere Port secondary modern school; Ruskin College Oxford; Hull University

Career: 1955: Cruise ship steward

1968: Appointed National Union of Seamen official

1970: Labour MP Hull East

1983: Shadow cabinet

1994: Elected deputy leader Labour Party

1997: Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions

2002: Deputy Prime Minister