Pauline Prescott: Wounded party

'John is not exactly flavour of the month in our house,' said one MP whose wife is a friend of Pauline
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Pauline Prescott has been glad of the telephone calls offering support from her close-knit circle of women friends this week at the Prescott family house in Hull. They did not include Tracey Temple, her husband's 43-year-old Whitehall diary secretary with whom he confessed to having an affair.

Mrs Prescott was able to draw on a few trusted friends such as Margaret, the wife of Richard Caborn, the Sports minister ­ Mr Prescott's closest friend at Westminster ­ and Betty Boothroyd, the former Speaker of the Commons, to ease the pain of the betrayal splashed across the newspapers.

"John's not exactly the flavour of the month in our household," said one MP whose wife is a friend of Pauline.

In fact, it was a double betrayal. The sight of her husband cavorting with his secretary at a Christmas party with Ms Temple wrapped around the Deputy Prime Minister was painful enough, but the photographs of his diary secretary keeping Mrs Prescott company at the state opening of Parliament at the height of their affair added salt to the wound.

"She is one of the gentlest, most decent people you will ever meet," said a family friend. "She has a handful of friends and they have been calling to wish her well. There's not much they can say, really. It just helps to talk to true friends."

The Prescotts are a strong clan, and the family rallied round. They included their sons, Jonathon, a businessman, and David, a journalist. David had been in the Commons only a few weeks earlier to witness his father's triumph at the despatch box standing in for Tony Blair, when he outwitted his Tory opposite number, William Hague.

In the family pow-wow at the Prescott home this week, friends said Mrs Prescott forgave her husband. "She has forgiven him," said a Westminster ally. "She's absolutely devastated because she idolises John, but believes it is the fault of the life they lead."

Many Westminster marriages have foundered on the long hours and the twin temptations of the round-the-clock bars and attractive secretaries beguiled by power. The late Robin Cook was one in a long line to fall for his secretary with painful results for his wife.

The Prescotts' marriage will survive the trauma, however. "Pauline is deeply upset but she is a strong-willed lady and she loves him," said another family friend. "The hardest thing for her is how people won't allow her and her husband to get on with their lives. They want to work this out in private for themselves, like any other couple, but she is besieged in her own home."

It is not the first time she has felt besieged in "Prescott's Castle". Greenpeace protesters climbed on the roof early one morning to unfurl a banner directed at Mr Prescott's handling of the environment. They might have had innocent intentions, but it terrified her. She thought they were a group of terrorists.

She recognises that staying in Hull as the dutiful housewife is one of the factors that can contribute to the strains in a Westminster marriage, but, in Pauline's case, living in London and sharing in her husband's political life was never simple. He was ferociously protective of his wife, and did not want her to share the political platform.

Mr Prescott frowned at Cherie Blair's apparent role as the First Lady of British politics. Old footage of the Labour Party conference finale show his discomfort at the idea of bringing his wife on stage for a dance when Tony Blair encouraged Cherie to join them on the platform. "Wives are not elected," he has told friends.

She has rarely given interviews, except for Fighting Talk, Mr Prescott's biography, and when she was reunited with her first son, Paul, an illegitimate child who was adopted before she married John.

She admitted to knowing nothing about trade union business when she first met the handsome Cunard waiter while he was ashore working as a chef at the local department store in Chester called Quaintways where she was a hair stylist.

Pauline Tilston was from a working-class Chester family. She had stunning good looks and entered Elizabeth Taylor look-alike contests with confidence. Her father was a bricklayer and her uncle Fred was a boxer who fought under the name of Tilly Tilston. It was a name taken up by her school friends, who still call her Tilly. But John has always known her by the shortened name, Paul.

They married on 11 November 1961 at the local Upton Parish Church and settled down to married life, below, in a semi-detached house which they bought a few doors down from John's formidable late mother, Phyllis, in Pine Gardens, a comfy cul-de-sac in Upton, a leafy suburb of Chester.

Writers trawling the cuttings this week invariably quoted a snide article in the Mail comparing Pauline to a former barmaid in the Rovers Return in Coronation Street. She had been hurt by the report which appeared on the morning after the election of Messrs Blair and Prescott as leader and deputy in 1994. "Mrs Prescott walked on stage after her husband's victory to plant a lipsticked kiss upon his cheek, each step of her high heels crushing the myth that the wives of Labour MPs have to be drab. Compared with Cherie Blair and Margaret Beckett, she looked like Bet Lynch arriving by mistake at a session of the Open University."

That report, recycled again this week, gave rise to the further myths that she speaks like Bet Lynch, with a broad Lancashire accent. They completely missed the fact that Pauline grew up in the more genteel surroundings of Cheshire, and, unlike John, has refined her accent.

The photograph of Pauline being escorted by the woman who was secretly having an affair with her husband is also telling. It shows Ms Temple in a baggy grey trouser suit next to the immaculately-dressed Mrs Prescott, resplendent in a black- and-white outfit, with a striking wide-brimmed hat set at a tilt that made her look like she had stepped off the set of My Fair Lady.

When it comes to dressing up, Mrs Prescott was never typical of Labour activists. When dungarees enjoyed a brief fashion among Labour women, Mrs Prescott stood out in red dresses with big hats at Labour Party conferences.

When she pulls up the "drawbridge" at their highly-polished Edwardian home, she avoids politics. "Politics is never discussed at home. John can switch off," she said. While Mr Prescott restlessly engages in a round of political telephone calls, she listens to Ella Fitzgerald, Sade and Sinatra in the farmhouse-style kitchen, and does most of the cooking. However, she can be feisty. Early in their marriage, Mr Prescott returned from a union march to find no dinner but a note which he still has saying: "John, so glad your (sic) back from your march and that you could make it. Well I've just gone on a march so you can bloody wait for me." He was fortunate not to get another such note this week.

Callers to the Prescotts at weekends can often hear Pauline in the background in the kitchen. One friend recalls being told by John: "I think the curry has just gone off." Pauline came on the line and said: "Just for the record, my job remains unchanged!"

Mrs Prescott also has a penchant for horse racing, and used to enjoy swapping bets with Robin Cook or John's late father, Bert, a railwayman. She has also enjoyed some of the trappings of public office, including Dorney Wood, their grace-and-favour house in Bucks, and has even launched a ship on one of the "DPM's" visits to the Far East.

But throughout their married life, she was nursing a secret that became more agonising as the years passed, the child she had put up for adoption before she married John. Like any doting mother in the early 1960s, Phyllis had not been happy when John told his parents he was set on marrying Pauline, who had had a baby out of wedlock by another man.

Every year on her son's birthday, 2 January, she would "keep myself to myself" and think of the son who had disappeared from her life. From the moment that John Prescott became the Deputy Prime Minister, the media pack had been hunting for "Prescott's love child" and searching for colour in his life. There had been rumours of affairs with other staff, party candidates, and there was a fun-loving side to the DPM that the public rarely saw and suggested a man whose life had more to it than political ambition.

He was a born showman, and had inherited the Liverpool love of making a gag out of everything. In his Cunard days, when he was lighter and fitter, there are old photographs of him wearing a white T-shirt, when he did bear a striking resemblance to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

He recently said in an interview for a community radio station in Bristol covering an audience of just 6,000 listeners that, if his life had been filmed, he would have liked Brando to play himself. In fact, Prescott has his own film library of his life on board the Cunard, shot on one of the early wind-up home video cameras which he picked up in America. He was filmed "On the Town" in New York and could have lived up to the sailor's boast of a girl in every port.

The journalists in the hunt for the lovechild were amazed to discover that the child was not John's but Pauline's. And when they tracked him down, they found her son could not have been more far removed from the Prescott's life. He was an officer in the Royal Military Police, had been decorated by the Queen, voted Conservative, and liked fox hunting. When they were reunited, John said he was glad to see his wife's joy.

This weekend at the family home in Hull, as he struggles to restore credibility to the public office and the wife he has betrayed, Mr Prescott for the first time in his life may realise he owes his political survival to the support of Pauline.

A Life in Brief

BORN Pauline Tilston, Chester 1940. Father, a bricklayer.

CAREER Hairdresser at Quaintways department store, Chester.

FAMILY : First child, Timothy Paul, born 2 January, 1956. Adopted 1959. Married John Leslie Prescott, Upton Parish Church, Chester, 11 November 1961. Jonathon born 5 April, 1963, David born 22 June, 1970.

SHE SAYS "Politics is never discussed at home. John can switch off."

HE SAYS "Pauline is devastated"