'Yes, my language is robust. It's how I get the message across to the Left'

A tough approach gets results, says the Deputy Prime Minister. Interview by Colin Brown
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The Independent Online
JOHN PRESCOTT was in a forgiving mood. Sitting in the back of his red ministerial Jaguar en route from his Hull home to Heathrow airport, the Deputy Prime Minister conceded he may have gone slightly over the top when he accused one of Tony Blair's advisers of being a "teenybopper".

He had been unfair to Geoff Norris, a member of the Downing Street policy unit, who had described his transport White Paper as being too "anti-car". Mr Prescott conceded that the adviser to the Prime Minister had been right about the early draft of his White Paper. "I think the incident was a little unfair to Geoff Norris. I tend to use language which epitomises a mood. I mean Geoffrey is 40-odd... We did have a bit of a laugh about it afterwards.

"Perhaps the language is a bit robust really but it's one of those ways that I make my point, so the Left pick up the message. It's another expression like 'beautiful people' - some of them were quite ugly really. It's part of my humour, which is an important part of my political personality. It's not meant to be personally offensive, but 'beautiful people' did identify a mood, and it became part of the political language."

Motorists who see Mr Prescott as the Oppressor in the Red Jag may also feel relieved that he has now toned down the much-heralded, and delayed,White Paper.

As the car squeezed through the narrow back-streets around the British Museum, in central London, he was still brimming with ideas: asset-sweating to produce more money for more investment; an idea for building a bus lane along the M25 from Heathrow to Gatwick; a plan to let the breakdown services use the hard shoulder to reach stranded motorists, particularly women at risk.

Through a three-hour conversation, he repeatedly spoke of his "warm" relations with Gordon Brown. There is an important alliance which has been formed at the heart of the Government, which is only just beginning to bear fruit. He speaks regularly to Tony Blair but the Deputy Prime Minister's deals with the Chancellor could be making doubting "teenyboppers" in the City sit up and take note that the former cruise liner bar steward, who celebrated his 60th birthday last week, has come of age.

We were travelling to Heathrow from Mr Prescott's home in east Hull - a former Salvation Army hostel that cost pounds 28,000 in the 1970s and is known locally as Prescott's Castle. He was going to the airport to take Concorde to New York, and arranged to go by car to fit our interview into his schedule. At the moment, it is still petrol-driven; he is still awaiting delivery of a gas-powered V8 version.

Should someone who is supposed to be at the helm of the green revolution be in a car, and taking Concorde? Mr Prescott is not talking about banning the car. He wants to reduce its use where possible, but he is realistic; the British love affair with the car will not be broken until there are better alternatives.

He thinks it is risible for the Conservatives attack him for being "anti- car" as he is using ideas such as congestion-charging and tolling on motorways which the Tories set in train. He is more concerned at their claims that it will hit mothers on the "school run".

Mr Prescott is anxious to nullify that charge, and is looking at safer routes to school for children, including an experiment in Leicester where a bridge over a railway led to a big increase in children cycling, or more investment in school buses. "All these cars parked outside schools is quite dangerous for children. The question is, can we meet their demand in a different way?

"I think there is a lot to be done with getting people who take the normal journey to work, not just the school. The DVLA have 4,000 workers and three-quarters are women; they can travel by flexi-hours that allows them to drop the kids off, do the shopping and pick the kids back up again."

He seemed more at ease with himself after a year in government. His only complaint is that he is putting on weight; he is powerfully built, although only 5ft 7inches in height, and has decided to shed some pounds; there is a set of scales in the boot - part of an attempt to stop his snacking.

Despite his gruelling schedule - last Friday it was Spain, yesterday it was New York, today it will be Question Time in the Commons - he feels that "exhilaration" is winning out over the tiredness that comes with office. "It was part of my judgement at the beginning that all my efforts would be going into getting the footings in because I believe if you get it right in the first 12 months, and it's good, it's easier to live with. If you get it wrong, you have to live with the reputation of the bad first year."

The City, like some of his friends, under-estimated him. Clare Short told him with blunt honesty in the leadership election that people would not vote for him as leader because they could not see him handling Prime Minister's questions. After a year in office, he believes most people have revised their view about him, but not all. Mr Prescott was still bristling over the City journalist who questioned how someone who was once a steward could have put together the London and Continental Railways deal which rescued the Channel Tunnel link.

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