Prescott raises a laugh as he defends new job to MPs

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Indy Politics

John Prescott believes he has a bigger workload than almost any previous deputy prime minister, even without a government department to run.

A pugnacious Mr Prescott made his assertion as he took questions from MPs in the House of Commons for the first time since a cabinet reshuffle abolished the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. As an aside, he also clarified that he no longer owned two Jaguars, in the hope of shedding his "Two Jags" moniker.

There were hoots of laughter from Tory MPs when Mr Prescott announced that one of the committees he now runs will deal with "domestic affairs". He made an awkward slip of the tongue when he was trying to say that the government want a "fair" pension scheme and actually said: "What we want is an affair and affordable pensions scheme."

The new cabinet structure sees Mr Prescott chair nine cabinet committees or subcommittees, four more than previously.He will also act as deputy on seven committees which are chaired by Tony Blair.

He claimed - inaccurately - that this was "two or three times as many" as the previous deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine. In 1996 MrHeseltine sat on a total of 15 cabinet committees and chaired five as deputy prime minister.

The committees chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister will include those covering domestic policy, health, housing, the post office, ageing, and animal rights activists. He will deputise for Mr Blair on committees covering the most sensitive policy areas like asylum, NHS reform, schools reform and energy.

Mr Prescott's role came under withering attack from Tory MPs who believe that he was, in effect, sacked when his department was taken away, but was allowed to keep his pay and perks.

Oliver Heald, shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary, suggested that his real job was to be a "political broker" between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - "a sort of marriage guidance counsellor between No 10 and No 11". He also accused Mr Prescott of being to blame for the way pensioners have been hit by rising council tax bills. "The architect of this disaster loses his job and yet he has still got three homes, two Jags and a fancy office in Whitehall," Mr Heald said.

The Deputy Prime Minister's nickname "Two Jags" dates back to when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions eight years ago, and was found to have a second-hand Jaguar in his garage at home, as well as the official government Jaguar that he was using.

The reference to "three homes" refers to the fact that he has use of a grace-and-favour flat in Whitehall and a country house, Dorneywood, in Kent, as well as his family home in Hull. Mr Prescott replied: "Just for the record ... I have one house, one car - 10 years old. I suspect on the benches opposite, most people have got a lot better than that."