Two Jags, but one of a kind: DJ Taylor bids farewell to John Prescott

Whatever the result of the general election, there's one Right Honourable Member who'll be particularly missed in the Commons and beyond.

The "Cross-bencher" column in the old-style Sunday Express had a patented formula for checking out the ambitions of any politician who strayed onto its radar. What thoughts, it would innocuously enquire, were crowding into the head of Mr X, the member for Lymeswold Central, as he stepped briskly into the committee room this bleak December forenoon? To adapt this for the modern age, what thoughts are crowding into the head of the Right Honourable – prospectively Lord – Prescott, retiring member of parliament for Hull East, this bright May morning as he prepares not only to cast his vote but to relinquish a role in British political life that was first taken up all of 40 years ago?

One fact that Prescott will very probably reflect on is the profound change that has come upon the House of Commons since he first started making his presence felt in it back in 1970, as part of a leftist-leaning Labour intake that included Lord (as he now is) Kinnock and Dennis Skinner. There were genuine Tory 'knights of the shire' – Sir Harry Legge-Bourke and Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Morgan-Giles – still at large in the Commons tearooms in those days. The Labour back benches groaned under the weight of superannuated trades unionists, and no South Yorkshire nomination changed hands without the National Union of Mineworkers' nod. Tribalism was triumphant, modernising influences suspect, and the gnarled backbencher who was once asked if he would be voting for Roy Jenkins in a leadership election is supposed to have replied, "Nay lad, we're all Labour here."

Four decades later and whatever the ramifications of tonight's result, the Commons is set for one of the greatest personnel changes in its history, in which as many as 40 per cent of its seats will have new occupants. Onto its back benches will sweep a tide of Tory management consultants and millionaires, Labour barristers and local government officials, and Lib Dem university lecturers and technocrats – young (for the most part), presentable, tractable, trained-up by the party managers in the art of answering tricky questions in a relaxed yet forceful manner. None of them, it can safely be predicted, will be anything like John Prescott.

Zealously unpicked and reconstituted by the nation's journalists these past 13 years and more, endlessly crawled over by ideologues of right and left, disparaged by feminists, acclaimed (sometimes) by the mysterious entity known as "the ordinary working man", Prescott's progress has all the elements of a modern myth, in which each episode is capable of proving some salutary moral about the age we inhabit, and each supplementary character eventually declares himself (or herself) as a figure of altogether gargantuan import.

There is old Bert Prescott, the railway signalman who began it all, first estranged from his thrusting young son but eventually reconciled. There are the teachers of Brinsworth Manor School and their failure to secure him the grammar school scholarship he craved. There is the stewarding job for Cunard, ferrying gin and tonics to Anthony Eden's cabin ("a real gentleman" according to Prescott). Less picturesquely, but testimony to Prescott's burning ambition to make his mark, there is the trip to Ruskin College, Oxford and the Hull University economics degree. HG Wells might not have liked the reality of Prescott, but he would have known where he came from and relished the spectacle of his ascent.

And, taken in the round, Prescott has always borne an uncanny resemblance to a Wells hero: come from nowhere; barrelling on to no one quite knows where; moody, prejudiced and impetuous, but also bonhomous, modest and mundane, liked and despised in equal shares, as loyal to his party as to himself. Like the family described in Hilary Mantel's memoir Giving Up The Ghost, he had aspiration but no aspirates. No one could deny the upwardly mobile class-warriors of the post-war era their materialism, modern historians tend to suggest, given the crucible of debt and deprivation in which it had been forged. There was a poignant symbolism, consequently, in this tribune of the people deploying two Jaguars (one of them admittedly government-issue) in a movement where one would sometimes have been considered too many. With Prescott, socialism was not only moving down the road – that famous 250-yard dash to a conference hall where he was booked to discuss public transport policy – but also, indisputably, with the times.

But then symbolism has woven itself through every aspect of Mr Prescott's career, like bindweed through a lawn. The most obvious mark of his larger-than-life quality is the extraordinary number of nicknames he attracted. Most senior politicians make do with one, or at most two. James Callaghan's were 'Sunny Jim', because of his supposedly equable temperament, and 'Farmer Jim', on account of the rolling Sussex acres where he spent his weekends. Prescott, on the other hand, accumulated at least six: 'Prezza', to begin with; 'Two Jags' (a reference to the car fleet); 'Jabba The Hut' (The Return of the Jedi's outsize villain); 'Two Jabs' (after attacking a protesting farmer who had thrown an egg at him); 'Two Shags' (a discreditable incident in his private life); and even 'No Jobs', coined by this newspaper after he lost his department in a Cabinet reshuffle of 2006 but contrived to retain both the residence and the perquisites associated with the title of Deputy Prime Minister. There are probably others.

Only an ingrate would suggest that the soubriquets came in inverse proportion to the political achievement. Certainly, the outsize port-folio he was handed in 1997, as head of the newly created Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions, produced surprisingly little return. There was talk – but only talk – of something called an "integrated transport strategy". A scheme for regional assemblies had to be abandoned. But he was an indefatigable critic of the rail companies, an assiduous Kyoto lobbyist, and later worked with the Miliband brothers on the Government's post-Kyoto agenda. And then there is the unarguable fact that throughout this period the responsibilities with which he was invested were much less important than what he was supposed to represent. What he was supposed to represent was New Labour's link with 'Labourism', those (metaphorically) cloth-capped traditionalists appalled by the modernising line being taken by the party's new leaders after John Smith's death in 1994, but prepared to lend support (and funding) if power could be delivered. Even greater than this, perhaps, was the responsibility of keeping Gordon happy with Tony and vice versa.

Power was duly delivered, but the price was considerable – not least to Prescott himself. To browse the political memoirs of the 1990s and early 2000s is to appreciate quite how much he was disdained by the people he came up against. Even quite nice politicians detested him.

"A terrible man, absolutely awful and a hypocrite," John Major pronounced shortly before the 1997 general election. Coming across him at a Spectator party at around this time, Woodrow Wyatt's daughter Petronella found him practically lachrymose. "He got very drunk. He said he hated Blair and the people around him. 'They insist on coaching me to talk grammatically and posh and I don't want to speak grammatically'." Wyatt assured him that, "You do it like Ernie Bevin. It's all pretty coherent."

This, alas, is to ignore the tortured syntax of Private Eye's "Let's parler Prescott" column, and the story – no doubt apocryphal, but these things stick – of applicants for jobs on Hansard being required to listen to one of the Deputy Prime Minister's speeches and see if they could understand what he was saying. It gave rise, at any rate in Labour Party circles, to what journalists christened 'the Prescott Defence'. Last used by supporters of the former speaker, Michael Martin, after his enforced departure from office, it consists of declaring that any criticism of politicians with working-class origins on grounds of inarticulacy was simply an expression of class prejudice. Mr Prescott's detractors, alternatively, declared that class prejudice had nothing to do with it, and that ministers of the crown, from whatever social class, who presumed to address millions of people on television should be able to do so coherently.

Such disputes gesture at Prescott's one unique talent: his ability to create newspaper headlines, to reduce the small matter of government policy and its presentation to the much larger matter of himself. It is an axiom that controversial politicians attract controversy, but Prescott's serial exposure at the hands of the press over the past 13 years is unparalleled in modern political history.

Were he to attend the Brit awards, it could be guaranteed that a radical musician would throw water over him. Campaign-trail eggs descended on his shoulders with a kind of homing instinct, and if fists had to be thrown, then he was the man to throw them. The public money used to pay the council tax on his government flat; Tracey Temple, his diary secretary, adulterously entertained at his official residence; the sexual harassment claims; the two toilet seats in as many years that featured in his expenses claim... In the end the inexorability of the Prescott disclosures suggested that they derived not from bad luck, or even malicious enquiry, but from some deep-rooted psychological flaw, like those masochistic English professors whose relish at having the mistakes in their work pointed out is so acute that you wondered why they allowed them there in the first place,

All this has a figurative significance well beyond the traditional exploits of larger-than-life politicians: these are usually backbench mavericks, rather than king-makers and vote-corallers who spend a decade and a half at the very highest levels of political life. More so than any politician of the modern era, Prescott was a man caught between a rock and a hard place.

The rock was New Labour and the hard place was the political tradition that bred him. Both, curiously enough, look unlikely to survive the events of the next 24 hours. Meanwhile, there is Prescott himself, whose exploits over the past 20 years might be thought to demand a kind of commemorative frieze or tapestry, its key scenes picked out by a squad of 21st-century needlewomen in countless strands of blue and red.

The punch-ups! The shags! The speeding fines! The packed bags and the furious wife on the doorstep (the long-suffering Mrs Prescott's part in the saga almost demands a frieze of its own)! In the end, one feels a queer kind of sympathy over the paradoxes of Prescott's career.

He was New Labour's conscience, and its serial embarrassment, its pacifier and its pugilist, its throwback and the guarantor of its future, the guardian of its citadel and the keeper of its folly. As he casts his vote this morning in Hull East, Prescott may feel that these roles were too many for any single politician to sustain, let alone the railwayman's son from Prestatyn whom the wicked modernisers wanted to talk posh.

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