Spin doctors squirm as perky Prescott goes on a walkabout

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The Independent Online
ROSS KEMP, EastEnders' bit of rough, was expected to provide the glamour yesterday in Labour's final bid to inject some life into the European elections.

Mr Kemp, tragically, was forced by work commitments to stand down, which left the way clear for the party's own rough-edged deputy leader, John Prescott, sporting designer shades, to prove once again that - in his case at least - a paunchy, baggy-eyed politician can have his own mysterious pulling power.

In the 1997 general election, Mr Prescott emerged as Labour's surprise secret weapon when he toured the country for six weeks, covering 10,000 miles, in his battle bus. Yesterday the dusted-down Prescott Express rolled into Sainsbury's on the edge of Reading at the start of a three-day national, Euro-election tour.

Mr Prescott is the master of the common touch when few - if any - other MPs bring any meaning, or personal touch, to the process of "meeting the people" in the media age.

Take Mr Prescott's schedule yesterday. It began with the quickest tour of Sainsbury's ever recorded. In less than 15 minutes - from the start by the bedding plants to the end by the check-out till - he managed to chew the fat with a disabled staff member, eat an orange on special offer and queue for a designer coffee - posing for pictures and shaking hands all the way. The miracle is that he makes some of his encounters seem human.

It was comforting to note the unscripted moments. One of Mr Prescott's secrets is that he does not try to hide them and pokes fun at the manufactured nature of the walkabout.

"What do you think about Europe?" he asked the Labour-supporting teenager set up for a chat. "I know it's a loaded question but I'm praying you get it right." Prayers went unanswered. "I'm not sure about Europe," the callow youth dithered.

Others had not read the script either. An American woman, with a bee in her bonnet about the age children should start school, assailed Mr Prescott. She was articulate and focused and would not let go. He took her on while the clock-watchers fidgeted around their worst nightmare - a real person with a real question who would not be denied.

Eventually he moved away muttering under his breath that perhaps she ought to return to the United States. It is this kind of indiscretion - sometimes abrasive and always unwelcome to spin doctors - that makes his contacts so human.

An hour or so later in Bristol, armed with a very old-Labour, old-fashioned microphone, he was working the crowd with all the ease of a compere at the local miners' welfare benefit.

He pulled in the punters with a few jokes. He said hello Bristol and then thanked God he had the town right. He confided he had once said hello Bolton only to discover he was in Barry.

Then he hit his audience with the politics, urging them to vote Labour on Thursday - but even if they didn't, at least to vote for someone. It was, he argued, their democratic obligation.