John Prescott: Man with the golden gaffes

Yesterday, John Prescott was at it again: saying the wrong thing in public, to general amusement. Yet those who dismiss the Deputy Prime Minister as a mere mangler of words underestimate one of the most astute minds in politics. Sean O'Grady celebrates a true hero of the Labour movement
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Indy Politics

"And we're now joined on the line by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Morning, Mr Prescott." When journalists hear those words broadcast on the Today programme they know they are in for a treat.

Yesterday's bout - when Mr Prescott was grilled by John Humphrys on the serious subject of homelessness and the less sombre topic of David Blunkett's views on his cabinet colleagues - was no exception. Mr Blunkett has called Mr Prescott "grumpy" and oversensitive about his "two Jags" nickname which "really gets to him".

Mr Prescott was as combative as we have come to expect, leavening loyalty with a line about an "element of political arrogance" in the Home Secretary's behaviour. It was great, outspoken, unvarnished Prescott stuff, a rabbit punch to the Blunkett kidney from a former boxer. But the interview's highlight was a classic Prescottism, as he spoke of the time when, as an unemployed seaman, he "had to live in one of these hostiles" when he obviously meant to say "hostels".

It joins a very long line of entertaining Prescottisms - the choicest of which combine malapropism, spoonerism, bureaucratese, politician-speak and plain old gobbledygook in one seamless flow.

The world according to Mr Prescott can indeed be a confusing place, one where the Labour movement is ready to "go back now, forwards, back to full employment", where the Green Belt is "a Labour policy, and we intend to build on it", where industrial disputes can be solved through "meditation" and where the Prime Minister is a chap named "Tony Blur" (although that may have been a Freudian slip rather than a true Prescottism).

Mr Prescott knows about his habit of messing his words up and is perfectly capable of seeing the amusing side of it. I once met the Deputy Prime Minister at a book launch. I introduced myself to Mr Prescott by saying that I had read everything he had ever said in 35 years in Parliament. "Oh?" he replied "Did any of it make any sense?"

Of course it did, if only because the Hansard staff are well-practised at tidying up the inevitable minor infelicities that creep into all members' contributions. It also made for interesting reading because it reminded one of how much of a class warrior Mr Prescott used to be: such as in 1972 when he co-sponsored a private member's bill to set up a Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain (which included the abolition of the monarchy in its measures). There is little sign of such revolutionary ardour in Mr Prescott nowadays, but there is still something of the class warrior about him.

Whether he is now middle class, as he says, or really working class, as his late father Bert maintained, he is certainly class conscious. He can be quite bitter about those who mercilessly mock him and seem to suggest that his jumbled-up words denote stupidity: "When I hear people who've been well educated talk in the House of Commons, it's an arrogance. They've been blessed, if you like. They can't tackle you on the ideas, the substance, so they go for the form. Those of us who've come through a bad education system are resentful about that. I have to live with my malapropisms and ellipses that give the sketch writers such an endless supply of material."

It's a stance that is backed by the Prime Minister, who issued this glowing tribute in 1998: "No prime minister, no party leader, could have a better deputy than John Prescott. You know why the Tories hate him: because he started out as a seaman, steward on a ship, rose to be deputy prime minister and has never hidden or been anything other than totally proud of where he came from."

And yet Mr Prescott is in some pretty good company. On this side of the Atlantic John Major and Neil Kinnock could be pretty chippy about people poking fun at their accents or speech patterns, believing, rightly, that much of it was based on snobbery about their relatively humble beginnings.

Episodes such as the "Prezza punch" in the 2001 election, when he thumped a man who had thrown an egg at him, didn't do much for his image, which is a shame. He is an intelligent and determined man, and too few of his political allies seem willing to tell the world that.

Perhaps a degree of sympathy for Mr Prescott's predicament is one reason for his enduring popularity in the Labour Party and his unassailable position as its deputy leader, a position he has held for a decade and which he has promised Mr Blair he will continue to hold for as long as Mr Blair remains leader.

The real problem for Mr Prescott isn't so much what he says as what he does. His record in office, it is fair to say, has been mixed. It was his idea to create the super ministry of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions that he would run after Labour came to power in 1997, a grouping that proved too unwieldy even for his talents.

He said, unwisely, that if Labour had not got people out of their cars and on to public transport in five years then the Government would have failed. The integrated transport policy he championed has turned into a bad joke. His dream of creating regional assemblies across England met an unhappy end when the North-east voted against the idea in a referendum last month.

He has had his moments, however. The role he played in the negotiation of the Kyoto Treaty on climate change is an abiding legacy. His speech to the Labour Conference in 1993, when the then leader John Smith was in some difficulty with his proposal for one-member-one-vote democracy, was important and typical Prescott, powerful, impassioned, and a bit mixed up: "There's no doubt this man, our leader, put his head on the block when he said he believes, because he fervently believes, of a relationship and a strong one with the trade unions and the Labour Party. He's put his head there, now's the time to vote, give us a bit of trust and let's have this vote supported."

Even the Prime Minister, who has good cause to be grateful for John Prescott's advice and support, sometimes fails in the duty of courtesy. A couple of years ago in an apparently late addition to his script at the Labour Conference, Mr Blair spoke of Philip of Macedonia, who many centuries ago employed "a bloke carrying a black stick with a pig's bladder on the end of it", who regularly entered his night quarters to wake him up and remind him that he was only mortal. "Would I need a bloke with a stick and a pig's bladder when I have John Prescott?"

With friends like that, you can see why the Deputy Prime Minister might sometimes get a little bit over-sensitive.

Prescott moments

Research by Oliver Duff

A CRAB CALLED PETER, 1997

Mr Prescott got his claws out at his Cabinet colleague, Peter Mandelson, at a flood defence photocall, naming a Chinese mitten crab "Peter" and asking it: "Do you think you'll get on the Executive?" [Labour's National Executive Committee]. Mr Mandelson said he was "amused" at the crustaceous comparison.

THE BRIT AWARDS, 1998

The Minister's night out at the year's trendiest pop event was ruined by anarchist Danbert Nobacon from cult band Chumbawamba, who emptied an ice bucket over him. Fellow band member, Boff Whalley, said the pair had a long-running "thing" - the band accused the Government of selling out the Liverpool dockers.

FRIEND OF THE EARTH, 1999

As minister responsible for cutting car use, "Two Jags" was ridiculed for taking his official car 300 yards from hotel to conference hall. Asked why, he said: "Because of the security reasons for one thing and, second, my wife [pictured left] doesn't like to have her hair blown about. Have you got another silly question?"

THE "RUMBLE IN RHYL", 2001

"Two jabs" took the 2001 election battle a little too literally when he punched an egg-throwing protester in Rhyl, Wales, and was questioned by police. His mother, Phyllis, said he would have been "less of a man" if he had reacted differently, and Tony Blair joked: "He has got very great strengths, not least in his left arm."

SILLY FLICKER, 2003

At the height of the uproar over the Government's Iraq war dossier, Mr Prescott flashed a sneaky V-sign at waiting journalists as he went into 10 Downing Street. "Two fingers" defended himself the next day: "I have my problems with English, never mind French. Then I thought, why not try a bit of sign language?"

SUPERHERO "ONE PADDLE" PRESCOTT, 2004

The DPM put his lightning reflexes to better use in rescuing a capsized kayaker from grade-four white water in Snowdonia. Keen to downplay the incident, he explained: "It's dangerous crossing Whitehall. I'm a diver, I'm a professional swimmer and I'm quite confident in the water."

On homelessness: "Any definition of homelessness that suggests that people haven't got a home is not good" (On yesterday's 'Today' programme)

On fox-hunting: "The majority of people in my constituency just see it as one of those kind of tally-ho, tally-ho issues that have nothing to do with modern Britain"  

On landing at an airport after a bad flight: "It's great to be back on terra cotta"  

On the environment: "The Green Belt is a Labour policy, and we intend to build on it"  

On housing: "We are prepared to tolerate that, because it's not a policy difference only, it's all those people who haven't got homes, the doctors and nurses, the people who are in homeless, they're the ones who've been carrying the pain for that"

On John Major's government: "Here we have a government disintegrating between our eyes"  

On transport: "We are now taking proper, putting the amount of resources and investment to move what we call extreme conditions which must now regard as normal"  

On foreign affairs: "My position is that I want to make our position clear. The example in Germany is just one example, for example"

On the private sector: "So I think the basic point that it is necessary in order to have private capital in our industries to get the extra resources that we do want that you have to be privatised is not borne out by the facts, in other countries, and neither we should we have it here also and if he's any doubts about that go and have a look at the reports that talk it"

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