John Prescott: 'My wife thought I'd just retire, but I'm not a slippers man'
At 73, John Prescott isn't mellowing. He tells Oliver Wright how the press is devious, that the Met is 'questionable', and why he's taking a shot at becoming a police commissioner
It would be fair to say there are two professions that Lord Prescott does not hold in high regard. The first is the police, which has tempted him back into electoral battle at the age of 73. The second profession is journalism.
So it is with some trepidation that I head to Lord Prescott's home city of Hull to meet the former Deputy Prime Minister, a few hours after his announcement that he intends to become Humberside Police's first independently elected police commissioner.
When I arrive, he is standing outside Hull's central police station in the freezing cold – not so much posing for the photographer as scowling for him.
"Could you just turn your head slightly to the right and fold your arms?" asks the photographer.
He complies (sort of), giving a malevolent stare. Quite besides his famous punch, Lord Prescott has the reputation of having a fearsome temper and being a tricky interviewee.
But when we retire to a local café he is in good spirits – fast and furiously lambasting policemen, newspaper editors and their arrogant proprietors, as well as giving advice to today's politicians on communicating in the digital age.
First off, though, why on earth does he want to take on a full-time elected office again at the age of 73?
"I am not a slippers man for God's sake," he shoots back. "My wife said to me, 'I thought you and I had ended with all this stress of your job'. I said, 'what stress? I've lived with that all the time.' She said, 'no – you're going to be home six or seven days a week – it's my stress I'm worried about'.
"Now we've had a serious discussion about it because I think she thought that when I was finished in Parliament it was time for slippers up, and now and then have an interesting journey somewhere.
"But I can't do that – I'd die in my slippers. So I'm back on my campaign bus, going around the villages and the towns. I think I'll even have the same slogan [as New Labour] – Things can only get better."
So what about the accusation that having opposed the policy (along with his party) he is now somewhat hypocritical to be standing for the new job with its £70,000 salary?
"I never supported the policy and neither did the party because we thought there was not a big demand for it," he says. "We were also not happy with the basic principle of putting the police under political control as well.
"But, you know, the Government decided it was coming in, and I recall I voted against the Common Market and still worked in Europe." One of Lord Prescott's motivations for the job, he says, is to try to impose some accountability on the police, of whom he generally has a low opinion.
While the noble lord is quick to make a distinction between regional police forces such as Humberside (which he respects) and the Metropolitan Police (which he doesn't), he makes it quite clear that a Commissioner Prescott is not going to be taking a back seat.
"The police always argue that [many things they do] are a matter of operations and politicians should not be involved. Well, I'm afraid I have a big argument with that."
He cites the case of the 2006 police raid on a street in Forest Gate in east London. "At one stage the police were going to turn out all the residents of the street at 2am in the morning. John Reid was the Home Secretary and I was working with him. Andy Hayman, who was in charge, wanted to turn them out and I said to John Reid – no, you can't do that.
"He said: 'John, it's operational'. I said sod operational, there are political considerations here. Turning out a street of Asians at 2am with the allegations of a gas plot and we don't know what the evidence is for that. I am not against the police running the organisation, but there are times someone should just say: Hang on I don't think that's right. Convince me about it.
"In that case, as we now know, one person was shot and was eventually found quite innocent."
So when was it that he first started to take such a dim view of the police?
"I've always thought the Met Police were questionable," he says. "Twenty years ago, I remember looking at how many police officers retired from the Met – for obviously very funny reasons. And they kept their pensions and nobody ever got sacked. We've been through four or five commissioners who said they were going to change that and nothing's happened."
But it is the phone-hacking scandal that most angers him. Earlier this month Lord Prescott finally received an apology from the Metropolitan Police for failing to inform him over a period of years that his phone had been hacked. This only happened after he took the force to a judicial review.
"The police were lying to me for five years – I just think to know it's a lie and to continue doing it is open contempt. They took a gamble that they could get away with it and that's contemptuous."
But, if he dislikes the Met, his real anger is directed towards the press – not just News International papers but the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph too. He is an avid viewer of the Leveson Inquiry and is enjoying seeing editors being cut down to size.
His dislike of the newspaper industry is fuelled by personal experience. He tells a depressing story of the deal he had to do with News International when the News of the World discovered that his wife, Pauline, had given a son up for adoption before they were married, who had gone on to become a senior army officer.
"The press had heard about it and went looking for him. They found him. He was a Lieutenant Colonel up in Scotland, and they knocked on the door and said, 'We're printing the story about who your mother is'. I had to say to Rebekah Brooks [then editing the News of the World]: 'Look, let them get together first'."
Lord Prescott arranged for mother and son to have a private meeting, after which they would pose for photos and do an interview. "But then [Brooks] moved to become editor of The Sun and Andy Coulson took over. She tried to take the exclusive with her. Les Hinton [chief executive of News International] had to call them both in.
"He decided that one paper could have the photographs and one paper could have the interview. But then Coulson went and found photographs of my wife's son dressed as a woman in a kind of army show – suggesting he was kind of gay. You know these two bastards are employed by the same Murdoch operation."
More recently he was attacked by The Daily Telegraph when it emerged he was considering standing as a police commissioner. "I used to think it was a good paper until those two tax exiles from Jersey [Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay] bloody bought it. When I first said I might stand, the Telegraph decided to do a story on me and all my speeding offences.
"Where did they get it from? They copied the lot from Wikipedia. They just put the bloody lot in. That was a political decision about me standing for the job. At least they could have rung me."
But what about the big political picture – how does he think Labour is doing under Ed Miliband? Lord Prescott has been heartened by the way Mr Miliband has taken on the bankers and Murdoch but, perhaps ironically given their age difference, thinks the party needs to do more to communicate in new ways. "You can't give a leaflet any more to people. You've got to find a new way of talking to young people. There is no good knocking on doors."
So when he returns to the campaign trail – as much on Twitter as on shoe leather – what will he say to voters who remind him of his own brush with taking the law into his own hands with his famous punch during the 2001 general election?
"Somebody suggested on Twitter that my campaign slogan should be 'A left hook for the crooks'."
The Labour peer laughs. Then, perhaps fearing even The Independent will somehow take this remark out of context, he hastily adds: "It won't be, by the way."
Who'd want to be a police commissioner? other contenders
The Falklands War veteran plans to stand as an independent candidate in the election for South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner. The 50-year-old, who was badly burned when the RFA Sir Galahad was destroyed in 1982 during the conflict, said that the role required someone who was not a politician.
Colonel Tim Collins
The former army officer, famed for his eve-of-battle speech to troops in the Iraq War, may stand for the Tories in Kent. The 51-year-old said he had been inspired by the achievements of ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who reduced crime through tougher policing.
The ex-chairman of the Humberside Police Authority and current Lord Mayor of Hull plans to challenge John Prescott for the Labour candidacy. Mr Inglis said he felt he had "one last big job" left in him.
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