The truth about Prescott and that punch

When the Deputy Prime Minister hit an egg-throwing protester in 2001, he almost dealt a fatal blow to his career. In this extract from his new book, The Independent's Colin Brown reveals how close the incident came to derailing Labour's re-election strategy
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Wednesday, 16 May 2001 was the day that the general election caught fire, and John Prescott's cabinet career nearly came to an end. His infamous punch - an instinctive boxer's jab with the left fist - divided the nation, and became a talking point from Rhyl, north Wales, to Sydney, New South Wales.

The Deputy Prime Minister had gone up to Birmingham on a train chartered for the Cabinet and the media for the launch of the 2001 general election manifesto - bland even by the standards of manifestos - by Tony Blair. Gordon Brown, who had taken total control of the election campaign and the manifesto, smiled and joked. Blair chatted amiably. Prescott kept up some running gags. Labour were a massive 15 points ahead of Hapless Hague and the Tories in the polls - the Guardian/ ICM poll that morning put Labour on 16 per cent, the Tories on 31 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 16 per cent.

The launch - in the heart of Middle England to emphasise that New Labour was not a metropolitan party - was successful, although, in a pointer to future battles with Brown over "choice", Alastair Campbell briefed journalists that there would be no ideological limit on the use of private clinics to get NHS patients treated free of charge for things such as hip replacements. Afterwards, Cabinet ministers were dispatched to the corners of England to do regional manifesto launches.

Blair visited a local hospital to promote the health policies in the manifesto and ran into a media disaster. At the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, he was ambushed by Sharon Storer. Her partner had cancer and she was furious he could not get a bed on the bone marrow unit. With the television cameras rolling, she demanded to know what Blair was going to do about it. Blair looked uncomfortable as he listened to her one-woman demolition of his 1997 election promises "to rescue" the NHS.

Meanwhile, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, ran into the second media disaster of the day at the annual conference of the Police Federation in Blackpool. Straw was there to draw attention to the law and order promises in the manifesto, but was jeered and heckled by Britain's bobbies. They burst out laughing when he said that being a policeman was a popular job.

Prescott was in good spirits, unaware of the PR disasters to befall Blair and Straw, when at 6.35pm, the Prescott Express eased to a halt near the Little Theatre in Rhyl.

Brown had gone back to London and was holding one of the many conferences he chaired in the boardroom of the Millbank headquarters. Grouped around the table with him were Douglas Alexander, Brown's lieutenant; Ian Austin, his special adviser; Lord Falconer; Lance Price, the party's chief press officer; and focus-group guru Philip Gould. They were discussing regaining the initiative at the next day's press conference when a Labour of official, a woman, dashed into the room and whispered to Margaret McDonagh, the widely feared General Secretary of the party.

They watched as the woman started gesticulating. "She was waving her fists about, as though there was a punch-up. We all thought, 'this looks interesting'," one party source told me.

The official left the room and the meeting continued, but she returned to speak to McDonagh again. McDonagh then told the meeting: "There has been an incident in Rhyl. We don't know the details but we think that John Prescott may have punched someone."

There were desperate attempts to contact Prescott's team by mobile but it was proving difficult. The Labour Party had issued Orange mobile phones to all staff and Cabinet ministers, and Orange had poor coverage in Rhyl. Joe Irvin, acting as Prescott's "eyes and ears" at party headquarters, as he had for the 1997 election campaign, was inside Labour's war room when he saw the first newsflash on Sky News.

Shirley Lewis, Sky's correspondent in the north-west, who had the "scoop ", breathlessly reported that had been a fracas involving the Deputy Prime Minister. There were no live pictures being screened, but she said Prescott appeared to have thrown the first punch. Sky were rushing pictures back to the studio as she spoke.

On the journey back to London from Blackpool, Straw, unaware of what was happening elsewhere, gloomily shared a bottle of wine with his aide in the belief that the police assault on the Home Secretary would leading the news. As their train rattled south through the Midlands, his aide checked out the running order of the news and found out they were not the first item, or even the second. They were third, after Prescott's punch and the Prime Minister's row with the partner of a cancer victim. Gordon Brown's carefully laid plans for the manifesto launch were in ruins.

There was mayhem in the open-plan war room, as staff ran from one television to another, and tuned into the BBC, Sky and the 24-hour news programmes to try to catch the first pictures of the incident. Austin told an official to start videoing the news.

Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News, who was broadcasting live about the incident from their Millbank studio, received a call from an official in Labour's Millbank HQ half a mile away. "A press officer at Millbank said I would be sued for libel," he told me. "They would have denied it, if we didn't have the evidence." That threat died as Sky News began broadcasting film of the incident. Boulton, who was acting as the anchorman in London for the election, told viewers it was so serious that Prescott could be forced to resign.

But Brown's camp stood by Prescott, and were determined to get ahead of the news by issuing a statement claiming it was self-defence. Lance Price, a former BBC political correspondent in charge of the party's media strategy, refused to put out any statement before they had seen the pictures with their own eyes.

But the party's pollster Philip Gould was convinced that the public would never stand for a Deputy PM who went round hitting people and said that Labour's poll rating would be floored by Prescott's punch.

Meanwhile, a shaken and downcast Prescott telephoned Alastair Campbell on his mobile. Campbell took the call as Blair was about to record an ITV election programme, Ask Tony Blair.

"It's John," said the gruff familiar voice on the end of the line.

Campbell, who put the story in his one-man show when he left Downing Street, recalled there was an ominous silence. With the DPM that always meant there was a problem.

"I've hit someone," said Prescott.

"What?" asked Campbell, who could not believe his ears.

Campbell was incredulous as Prescott told him what had happened. Campbell decided not to tell the Prime Minister until his show was over. Prescott's friends say Campbell told Prescott he thought he would have to apologise.

Prescott snapped back: "You didn't apologise when you hit that lad on The Guardian." He was referring to the incident when Campbell, then political editor of the Daily Mirror, had punched Michael White, the political editor of The Guardian, in the Daily Mirror office at the Commons when the Mirror's ogreish owner, Robert Maxwell, had been found dead at sea. White bad popped his head round the Mirror's door and playfully suggested the paper's headline should be "Bob, Bob, Bobbing Along". Campbell, harassed, did not see the funny side.

As Blair, Campbell and Blair's gatekeeper, Anji Hunter, drove back from the studio, the grim view on board was that Prescott was in serious trouble. Blair asked Hunter what she thought. She had no hesitation in telling the PM it was terrible. "Middle-class England will not understand it," she said.

Campbell had a lot of time for Prescott, and had helped defend him when the press had been intruding into his private life over his wife Pauline's love child. But landing a punch in a general election campaign was, Campbell thought, beyond the limit.

The consensus in the Blair camp was that at least Prescott should apologise and some thought he should resign to try to limit the damage to the campaign, which was partly based on a promise to deal with yobbish behaviour. Brown was more cautious, and delayed forming an opinion until they could get a clearer view of what exactly had happened. While the debate went on at Millbank over what they should do, Prescott's career hung in the balance.

That night, his allies say, Prescott came to realise who his friends were.

There were some obvious questions to be answered: if Prescott was charged with a criminal offence, how could Labour pretend to be serious about law and order? And how could Prescott remain in the Cabinet?

When Joe Irvin got through to Prescott, he felt crushed by the whole affair. Prescott told friends: "I just felt terrible at letting the party down."

Irvin spoke to Blair, saying: "If we apologise, we will be admitting responsibility." Brown, running the campaign, asked Falconer, Blair's close friend and a fellow lawyer, to give his expert view of the footage, which they had videoed. Douglas Alexander, in spite of his youth, was also a highly respected lawyer in Scotland. Ian Austin asked for the video footage to be screened in freeze-frame and they gathered round. It was difficult to form an opinion from the Sky film, shot by a camera over Prescott's shoulder. Their view hardened when the BBC began broadcasting their own footage of the incident from a different angle, facing Prescott as he walked towards the Little Theatre. It clearly showed the egg being thrown at Prescott from point-blank range. Prescott instinctively ducked after being struck on the ear. Then he turned and let fly with a short left jab to the jaw of the protester. The protester lunged at Prescott, grabbed him and they fell to the ground, a meaty fist pushed into Prescott's distorted face, which was the image used on many front pages the next day.

In his lawyerly way, Lord Falconer turned to Alexander and said: "What do you think, Douglas? I think we could make a case of self-defence ..." Alexander and Falconer, who both had experience of cases involving Saturday-night fights in Glasgow, were of the opinion that there were good legal grounds for arguing that it was self-defence, and on no account should Prescott offer an apology. Lance Price bowed to their judgement and they rushed out a press statement saying it was self-defence.

Prescott believed the incident was organised by the Countryside Alliance, the campaign against Labour's threat to ban fox-hunting, as a payback for his speech to Labour's annual conference in 2000. Prescott had said: " Every time I see the Countryside Alliance and their contorted faces, I vow to redouble my efforts to abolish fox-hunting." Prescott was convinced the Rhyl attack was a set-up. That is denied by the Countryside Alliance, although Sky News reporters have confirmed that they were tipped off by the farmers to be there.

Prescott was also furious with the police. Instead of holding the protesters behind a safety railing that ran along the footpath, they were on the footpath, inside the barrier, where Prescott had to run the gauntlet to get to the venue. Two police officers preceded Prescott's small team, but his nearest protection as he walked along the footpath was Joan Hammell, the special adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister; and Beverley Priest, another assistant. They had gone only a few yards when a man in a blue shirt hit Prescott in the head with the egg.

Prescott felt it draining down his neck and thought it was blood. Craig Evans, the farm worker who threw the egg, was arrested but no charges were brought against either of them. The tabloids were hostile, but - largely because it was "Two Jags", at whom they enjoyed poking fun - the headlines were tinged with humour. The Sun front-page banner headline said: "Two Jabs".

By the following morning, Blair was confident his deputy would ride out the storm without damage to Labour's campaign. Blair bounced into the morning strategy meeting and said: "I cannot talk about it without finding it funny."

Campbell also backed his old friend, saying: "It will probably go down well with the D/Es (working-class voters)."

Blair succeeded in cauterising the issue at the morning press conference, paying a personal tribute to Prescott: "You could not wish for a deputy more loyal, more true and more decent. He cares about his country and he cares passionately about his politics ..."

Asked if he would have punched a protester, Blair said: "No, but John is John and I'm lucky to have him as my deputy." The phrase "John is John" made the headlines, but it was carefully ambiguous. A Blair aide said: "By saying John is John, Blair was making the point he would not have done that."

Gradually, the cloud over Prescott lifted. There had been a gender split in Millbank, with some of the younger women around Blair appalled at his behaviour while the men around Brown supported Prescott. The Brown camp also noted that they had backed Prescott when he needed their support but the Blair camp at best was equivocal and some believed he should go.

It did not appear Prescott suffered any lasting damage from the "Rumble in Rhyl". Indeed, his personal popularity appeared to rise afterwards as voters warmed to him for the first time. The Prescott wave, the clenched left fist, caught on across the country. Prescott noted that people were greeting him with it. To his surprise, they were all supportive. There was one caveat. His close friends thought the incident revealed Prescott was showing his age. His lifelong friend Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former union leader, said: "I told him it was a good left, but it had no weight. In the past, the lad would not have got up. He must be losing his touch."

"Prescott" by Colin Brown is published on Monday by Politico's, priced £12.99. To buy "Prescott" for the special price of £11.99 (with free p&p) call 08700 798 897. Colin Brown is deputy political editor of "The Independent".

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