John Prescott: 'I'm the one who acted stupidly'

He retains his good humour, but John Prescott admits the revelation of his affair with his diary secretary was traumatic. Now he just wants to ignore snobbish critics and get on with his job, he tells Colin Brown
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For a man who has been in the eye of the storm for two weeks, John Prescott was looking remarkably relaxed as he sat in his private office at the House of Commons. There was the same bullish good humour that his friends know him for, but he admitted the lurid coverage of his affair with his diary secretary Tracey Temple had made him reflect on the way he has treated those around him, including his loyal wife Pauline.

"You could say that it's certainly been a period of reflection, to analyse how I have acted," he said. "Anybody who doesn't feel affected by something as traumatic as that has lost their sensitivity. I have learnt my lesson about these matters. I just want to get on and show I can do a job and make a contribution and be a valuable part of the Labour Party and this Government."

The storm over his affair was bad enough, but he has also been accused of freeloading at the taxpayers' expense. In last Friday's reshuffle, Tony Blair allowed him to keep his title as Deputy Prime Minister, his £133,000 Cabinet salary and the trappings of office - the country house at Dorneywood, the grace-and-favour apartment at Admiralty House, and the official Jaguar - without the inconvenience of a Whitehall department to look after.

It was a myth, he said, that the Prime Minister had "stripped" him of the Office of Deputy Prime Minister last week. In fact, Mr Prescott had wanted to operate as a freewheeling deputy prime minister without a Whitehall department since Labour came into power nine years ago.

He was particularly annoyed by the criticism from Lord Heseltine, another member of the Deputy Prime Ministers' club, who had been John Major's deputy, but had never used Dorneywood. "It's snobbishness," said Mr Prescott. "Heseltine already has a big house in the country, and perhaps others in other parts of the world. I have one house [in Hull] and one car [a secondhand Jaguar]."

Mr Prescott had looked up the records on those who had been allocated the Buckinghamshire mansion since it was given in a trust to the Government 50 years ago. Of the 16 residents, he said, four have been deputy Prime Ministers - George Brown, the Labour deputy prime minister for a short period of time, Tory Lords (Willie) Whitelaw and (Geoffrey) Howe, and himself. "There is an association with this house and the Deputy Prime Minister, except Heseltine, and there have been more Tory ministers in it than Labour ministers," he said.

"I am getting the perks, but I am getting no more than others got. This [post] has gone to more Tories than Labour ministers. I am doing more work than Heseltine did." Warming to his theme, he took another sideswipe at Lord Heseltine: "I took the largest department that any Deputy Prime Minister has had and have continued to have the largest department that any deputy prime minister has had. That is for nine years right up to now, not some piddling thing like Competition which Heseltine had."

Mr Prescott's tasks also include overseeing the British Irish Council, and improvements in relations with China, which he has visited nine times. His passport is witness to his frequent trips abroad, unpublicised, for the Prime Minister. In June he is going to Finland for EU talks on the environment, followed by visits to the US and Canada to speak on sustainability at two conferences. "If anybody feels that is not work they should come and see it," said the politician who is also a pensioner.

"When you work the cabinet committees, their work is secret. I can't do questions in the Commons on the cabinet committees. Tony is saying, 'I want you do to do the job you know you can do and get me the agreements. Broker the deals.'

"I am a deal-maker. That is what I did before I came into Parliament, I brokered deals with the trade unions. He said he wants me to cut deals across government. That to me is a job. This is a man who wants to get on with the job. I have to make sure that it gets done on time." A year ago, Mr Prescott, now 67, told the Prime Minister that chairing cabinet committees, in addition to negotiating internationally on the Kyoto climate change targets and travelling the world on his behalf while running the local government and planning department, was getting too much.

"We discussed it 12 months ago," said Mr Prescott. "He said, 'we have a lot of cross-government work to do, there are a lot of things I want you to do for me'. He asked me to do a lot of the EU presidency things for him as well, including touring round the countries with Jack [Straw, then Foreign Secretary] and everybody else. I said, 'I cannot maintain this, and if you are doing a reshuffle, make the change now, but if you are not doing another reshuffle, give me another minister to help out because it's just far too much.' He gave me another cabinet minister, David Miliband. For the past 12 months, we have been transferring the functions from Admiralty House to Eland House. We began to move the department over ready for when the reshuffle came."

In the event, the timing - after the Tracey Temple diaries had appeared - could not have been worse. "It was planned but I said to Tony, 'you know what is going to happen now, given the damned circumstances, when you move me now, nobody will want to look at the history. They will just think it is a knockdown'.

"I said, 'I will just have accept that, because of these unfortunate circumstances, that it was planned before'."

Mr Prescott's skills as a negotiator were used to broker the deal between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown over cottage pie at the Admiralty House apartment in the autumn of 2004 when their relations were at an all-time low. That led to Mr Blair announcing before the last election that he would stand down after a third term.

Brownites have been frustrated by Mr Prescott's refusal to move against Mr Blair to whom he has been scrupulously loyal, but he will not be pushed now to choose sides. "It's publicly known I have always tried to help. But at the end of the day, Tony has to make his judgment about when he wants to go and then the candidates come forward. We want an orderly and smooth transition. I think we are all going to move towards that. I think it's possible and all of us should work towards that."

As Mr Blair prepares to face the Parliamentary Labour Party, his deputy called on the warring factions to end their conflict. "When I hear all this talk about what they are doing, I think all supporters have got to recognise we do have rules about this. This is a party nomination as much as anything, whatever individuals may think.

"The PLP are one part, the constituents are another part and the trade unions are another part. In those circumstances, people should know that whatever you do now, here in the PLP, you are but one-third of it; second, whatever you do, it's a decision by conference and the national executive and that can't take place until October."

He gave a clear warning to hold off until this year's party conference in October, adding: "Whatever the feelings about this and conference, I do say to people, don't get into a war about it now. It's an unnecessary distraction. No doubt the national executive and the conference will have their role to play; it's written into the constitution. I don't think people outside will be happy if the PLP continues to express great divisions about this, as we all know that is damaging to the party."

Did he take the blame for the affair with Ms Temple? "I have been stupid. I don't think there is any doubt about that. I have felt it over the week or so but I have got to get on with the job and do what I can. I want to concentrate on that. That is exactly what I am doing."

Did he see Ms Temple as a gold-digger? "I have no comment to make on that. I was the one who acted stupidly ... That's life. I just want to concentrate on doing the job." He shrugs off the press he gets. "It's what I've come to expect. I am no favourite of the media. And I'll let you into a secret - they are no favourites of mine either." After the past fortnight, that is an understatement.

As his biographer, I have seen him in many moods, but mea culpa has never been one of them. I asked him: "How do you feel?" There was a long pause, before he said, laughing, "What was your question?"