John Prescott: 'It's a fast ride with Tony Blair. My job has been to keep the hand on the brake'

The Monday Interview: Deputy Prime Minister
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John Prescott compares his 10 years as the Deputy Prime Minister with being the brakeman on a toboggan going down the Cresta run with Tony Blair as the driver.

John Prescott compares his 10 years as the Deputy Prime Minister with being the brakeman on a toboggan going down the Cresta run with Tony Blair as the driver.

However unlikely it seems, this image of Mr Prescott and Mr Blair huddled together on a runaway sledge with the brakeman shouting, "Slow down!" could become an enduring symbol this week as they celebrate their 10th anniversary as leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party.

"In those seven years in government, we have gone through some hairy curves," Mr Prescott told me at the weekend. "It's a fast ride with Tony Blair. My job has been to keep the hand on the brake. Traditionalists are always like that."

On Wednesday 21 July it will be 10 years to the day that a young and less worried-looking Mr Blair, then 41, was elected to take over from the late John Smith with Mr Prescott as his deputy. Mr Blair then urged the country: "Join us in this crusade for change."

Having written Mr Prescott's biography, Fighting Talk, I have witnessed more closely than most the influence Mr Blair's deputy has had on the process of change. Most of the focus in the past few months has been on Mr Blair's deteriorating relations with Gordon Brown, his restless Chancellor. The scars are too serious to reopen.

In an interview looking over the past decade, Mr Prescott made it clear that he did not want to discuss the relationship he jokingly calls "bed and breakfast (B and B)". In particular, Mr Prescott did not want to reopen any discussion about the political tectonic "plates" he said were moving a few weeks ago, which inadvertently set in train a renewed bout of leadership speculation.

In November last year, it became public knowledge that Mr Prescott was acting as a sort of marriage guidance counsellor, inviting the two to dinner in his grace-and-favour flat in Admiralty House, to patch up their differences and put the relationship on a more sound footing. The strains have continued, and Mr Blair's friends are this week renewing their warnings to Mr Brown that the Prime Minister will serve a full term if he wins the next election.

Mr Prescott has remained totally loyal to Mr Blair while forging an alliance with Mr Brown. His role in Mr Blair's "New Labour" government is dramatically being reassessed. A recent biography of Mr Blair by Anthony Seldon, which is not flattering to the Prime Minister, says of his deputy: "His importance cannot be overestimated." The old left, whom Mr Prescott was supposed to reassure, complain of betrayal, particularly on Iraq; Blairites say Mr Prescott and Mr Brown have used the brake too much. Mr Prescott admitted there is a "big argument" over the tone of the next manifesto.

"This is a big argument. Do you have to be radical to win elections? There is that school of thought which is leading in the direction of some of the arguments about choice and traditional and modern values. But how do you advance it and make it more effective?"

He said Mr Blair believes in a readjustment of the 1945 settlement, in which public services were delivered by public bodies. Mr Prescott pioneered private investment in public schemes, but Mr Blair is straining to go further. Mr Prescott conceded many have benefited from such reforms, but he warned the Blairites: "You have to remember you still have to convince people, that a lot of people vote Labour because of their traditional values. You have to carry the two together. I still believe in that general maxim: Labour's traditional values in a modern setting. Don't forget either part."

He has used his influence over the 10 years to stop the Project, a Blairite coalition with the Liberal Democrats, to keep the Tories out of office. He warned Mr Blair that if Paddy Ashdown walked into the Cabinet room to take a seat: "I am walking out."

The modernisation of Commons hours, which has enabled women ministers such as Harriet Harman, Yvette Cooper and Tessa Jowell, to juggle motherhood more easily with Parliament, is judged by Mr Prescott to be a failure and he wants it reversed. "I am a bit traditional there too. I would like to go back to the hours we had before," he said. "We miss talking to members because we are busy all day as ministers. It's in the tearoom at night you can have some talks.

"I think it rushes the whole parliamentary business of the day, so I don't think that has been beneficial. Frankly, the lifestyle of some of them who probably live in London has changed a bit. Not all of us live in London and after all, we work only 38 weeks a year in Parliament. I just don't think it's worked."

Is it still the Labour Party he loved? "I loved the party when it was getting only 28 per cent in the polls," he said. "The polls are the fundamental point at the end of the day, and the one that made the fundamental change to that was Tony Blair."

The 11 September attacks on the twin towers and Pentagon, hours before Mr Blair was to address the TUC in Brighton, was a shock to their plans for the second term. "I witnessed that with Tony," Mr Prescott said. Their rooms in their conference hotel were on opposite sides of a corridor. "When I saw the first one [the plane hitting the tower] I couldn't believe it. I walked into his room and we saw the second one. We couldn't believe it.

"I said to him, 'this is going to change the world'. He said, 'yes, in a quite fundamental way'. My response to that was that these problems will not be solved until we do something about Palestine and the Palestinian people. It was quite clear he was visibly shocked by the whole thing. And when he gave evidence to the Hutton inquiry, he did say it was a seminal moment in his thinking about how we deal with terrorism."

In March 2003, before the war on Iraq, Mr Prescott told my colleague, Donald Macintyre, that he was "pretty proud" to stand alongside Mr Blair over military intervention in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan. I asked him whether he still felt the same about supporting Blair on Iraq? "Yes," he said. "I have been consulted on all the things that have been involved. I have been supportive and I don't depart from that."

He brushed aside speculation on the Butler report last week which cast doubt on Mr Blair's judgement over the war, and threatened to claim the scalp of John Scarlett, the new head of MI6. He said it was "a bit tiresome if you have four inquiries" and people ignored the findings. "Some of the press just want blood, they want resignations; that is all they understand."

The hard left will be infuriated by Mr Prescott's remarks, but there is little love lost there. He resigned from the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, led by Bob Crow, one of the new breed of militant leaders who owe no allegiance to Labour, when the union demanded policy support from individual MPs including Mr Prescott in return for party funding. There was also the difficulty over his long-term tenancy of an RMT flat, which he was forced to vacate. Mr Prescott told me then that he would "die a union man".

He said this weekend: "I am back in a trade union." It is understood that he has joined Amicus, the union led by Derek Simpson, who in June called for Mr Blair to quit but is seen as a moderate.

Mr Prescott said Labour needed to listen to the electorate more after last week's defeat in the Leicester South by-election. "I used the phrase, 'We got a bit of kicking'. The electorate is not happy about some things. We have to get it on to a better balance."

He doubts that the Tories can challenge for power at the next election under the leadership of Michael Howard and thinks Mr Howard's TV image is a disadvantage for the Tories.

Mr Prescott listed among his achievements: the delivery of full employment which was included in the 1997 manifesto at his instigation; the Channel Tunnel rail link; the right to roam in the countryside; the congestion charge and progress on the Kyoto agreement on climate change.

He had huge rows with Downing Street about being too "anti-car" in the early years. But he denied the claim by the motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson - whom he called "stupid motor mouth" - that he should quit because he had failed to persuade fewer people to use their cars.

His biggest regret, he said, was that the rail industry had not translated the increased investment he won from Mr Brown into improvements in rail services. Now he is in the job he wanted, in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, chairing cabinet committees, and this week another of his pet schemes, regional assemblies, will start. On Thursday, the Lords could reject his timetable for all-postal referendums in the north of England on 4 November. "I am in the hands of the Lords," he said. "I can't ping-pong on this one. If they vote against it you are finished."

Mr Prescott has no plans to mark the 10th anniversary. "It's important but I have no time; there was some talk about marking it but what do you do? Have a few drinks? I haven't done anything. Have you seen my activities this week? There won't be any room for celebrations, not that I am not proud of it."

He laughs off reports of a peerage. Does that mean he is planning to go on, as Mr Blair appears to be doing, for 10 more years? The former merchant seaman said: "I keep going. It's still better than working for a living. Now I am off to watch Fahrenheit 9/11."


Born: 31 May 1938, Prestatyn, north Wales

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

1955: Cruise-ship steward

1961: Married Pauline Tilston

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