John Prescott started his affair with his 43-year-old diary secretary, Tracey Temple, at a time when his private life was already under close scrutiny. The Deputy Prime Minister spoke with rare understatement when he told yesterday's Daily Mirror his wife was ''devastated" after he told her that he had been having an affair, which had begun at an office Christmas party in 2002.
Pauline Prescott, the archetypal long-suffering political wife, had not the slightest hint of the affair, until her husband confessed to her this week. As soon as he was informed that the story had been given to the Daily Mirror, he quietly left the grace and favour flat in Whitehall where he had secretly met Ms Temple for his family home in Hull to tell his wife the truth.
Mrs Prescott had loyally stood by her 67-year-old husband through the hard times, and the rough and tumble of political life, for nearly half a century. They celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary this month.
Yesterday he was joined by other members of the family, a close-knit clan used to pulling together in times of adversity. They will pull together again, but this will test that family loyalty as never before. For several years there had been rumours of a "Prescott love child" and a media pack set out to uncover the truth. In 2003 they were surprised to discover that the illegitimate child belonged to Pauline, his well-liked and immaculately coiffured wife.
Mrs Prescott had the baby, Paul, legally adopted before she married John. I was first told about the child by Mr Prescott's late mother, Phyllis, a redoubtable Labour councillor, much like her famous son, after publication of his biography, presciently called Fighting Talk, in 1997. The existence of a secret "love child" had been lurking like an iceberg in the Prescott family for years.
Mrs Prescott told me she found the guilt agonising. Each year, on 2 January, her first son's birthday, she used to wonder where he was and "keep myself to myself'' for most of the day.
The story only became public knowledge after Paul had been tracked down by a journalist and told that his natural mother was Pauline Prescott. Paul's life was about as far removed from the Prescott family as it was possible to be: he was an officer in the Royal Military Police, a Conservative, and a supporter of hunting. But there was an instant rapport when he met his mother for the first time, and he was immediately accepted by his two half-brothers, David and Jonathon.
I went to Hull for the interview with Pauline, Paul and John, in their garden on a sunny day in the summer of 2003. Mr Prescott spoke about his happiness at seeing his wife with her long-lost son. However, six months earlier, flirting at the office Christmas party over vodkas with his secretary had turned into an affair. He is not known as a regular drinker, and it ended like many office parties with the flirting going too far. However, those who were at the party said yesterday that they had not known about the affair until they read it in the newspapers. Another close aide said: "I had absolutely no idea this was going on. It came as a complete shock."
The photographs of Mr Prescott sprawled in the arms of his secretary belie the public image of the angry grumpy bruiser, always spoiling for a fight, who earned the nickname "Thumper". That reputation was increased when he delivered a left jab to the chin of a farm worker who had thrown an egg at his ear during the 2001 election.
Mr Prescott has been a close ally of Gordon Brown, while remaining a loyal deputy to Tony Blair. After the punch, Mr Blair brushed it off saying "John is John". It was an eloquent verdict. In the world of political spin, the uncut, unpackaged Mr Prescott has been an asset to Mr Blair in keeping the party in line behind the leadership.
He took on the role of honest broker when relations between Mr Blair and Mr Brown deteriorated to the point where they were not speaking to each other. Mr Prescott chaired dinners, where he brokered a smooth handover of power. Mr Prescott made it clear to Mr Brown he favoured Mr Blair going 18 months after the 2005 election, but he would not help to push him out.
Last night, Mr Prescott's allies were calculating the damage from the affair with Tracey Temple. It is likely that unless there is more damage, Mr Brown will make a show of support for Mr Prescott. But if there are more revelations this weekend, Mr Brown may have to look for a new deputy.