The Sketch: Tony's chief bully boxes clever with smile and velvet gloves

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JOHN PRESCOTT, the chief bully and Deputy Prime Minister, took the House of Commons stage yesterday for Environment, Transport and the Region's questions to face Gillian Shephard, his new shadow.

Over the years, Mr Prescott has raised the art of bullying to a human bloodsport. Prime Ministers' minions, trade union leaders, Peter Mandelson, the former MP for Cleethorpes and, finally, the English language, have all at some time or another submitted, defeated, to his gruff no-nonsense approach.

This is the first time I have seen him since he concluded his successful bus tour of the country (which began and ended in Cleethorpes) during the last general election.

And what a difference a year makes!

Gone were the massive chips on both shoulders. Instead, was a well-padded, well-fitting suit. Almost elegant, he looked every inch the senior political heavyweight in total control of his department. Where once was a permanent scowl there is now an occasional smile.

Mr Prescott is obviously enjoying ministerial life and, just turned 60 last week, knows that he has confounded the pundits and his foes by dropping few catches. The fiery temper which was once his Achilles Heel has been kept well out of public view.

Yet his demeanour still bears the proud hallmarks of the class war warrior even if, on his own admission, he has been admitted by middle England to its high table of comfortable homes, fancy restaurants and Jaguar cars.

Mrs Shephard preferred to leave the school bully alone and upbraided, instead, the swot, Hilary Armstrong, local government minister, on possible threats to switch money from shire counties to urban areas.

Mrs Shephard is as diminutive as Mr Prescott is heavy. Where his words tumble out in no particular order, hers are issued individually rather as though they have been specially selected and counted out for the occasion.

One can image Mrs Shephard as the school ma'am (she was once a school inspector) coping with Prescott as the class bully with his flicking of ink pellets and his verbal cheek: "I may be facing the blackboard, Prescott, but I know you are the one I can hear putting chip butties into my handbag. See me afterwards."

It is rumoured that when they both appeared together last week after William Hague's reshuffle, Mr Prescott said to Mrs Shephard as they were standing behind the Speaker's chair: "I don't know whether I kiss you or cuddle you." "You'll do neither," she reportedly replied.

But there are some differences to Mr Prescott's new approach compared with his old style. Where once he set about his politics with a fiery passion, he now wisely uses cooling water to damp down potential trouble from the opposition benches.

He generously, and almost courteously, welcomed the new junior opposition spokesman, Bernard Jenkin, who showed great wit and further promise on his first outing.

Mr Prescott apologised for not participating in yesterday's parliamentary cycle ride to mark National Bike Week, but said he had just flown in from New York. "I don't think anybody has thought of cycling from New York."

Mr Jenkin said to laughter that this would no doubt become Liberal Democratic Party policy, shortly before he took on the old bruiser on the delay in producing the much heralded transport White Paper. Mr Prescott cuffed gently by saying he had to spend the past year sorting out the mess the Tories left him.

This question time showed the full extent of Mr Prescott's personal achievement. With old scores to settle, I tried in vain to see any cracks in his armoury. I want to hate him but I just cannot. He is simply too good. But then maybe I have always been prejudiced, subconsciously in his favour. After all, us secondary modern schoolboys must stick together, mustn't we John?