When we last met, some time ago now, Mr John Prescott confessed he had never read a book for pleasure in his whole life. It was at a literary reception to celebrate the publication of a friend's book: by which I mean that he was a friend of the author, as I was one of her friends also, but Mr Prescott and I were never close. Not that he and I were enemies either, you understand. We tended to give each other a wide berth: that is all.
All the same, I was a bit shocked by his admission. In his long, arduous and, in its way, heroic trek through Ruskin College, Oxford, and Hull University, he must surely have at some stage read some book for fun. Perhaps he was striving for effect. Who knows?
As it happened, the host for the evening was Mr Iain Dale, the proprietor or manager of Politico's Bookshop, now sadly defunct, though I did not go there very often. Mr Dale, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate, has now changed, or enlarged, his publishing activities to include a website. This is supposed to include details of several extra-marital affairs on Mr Prescott's part (I write "supposed to'' because I have not actually read the stuff, not having the electronic means conveniently to hand).
This tittle-tattle is often soundly based, pre-dating electronic times, as happened in the Profumo affair; more often, the stories are made up, as they were over Sir John Major. Oddly enough, what no one suspected - or could have made up - was the relationship between Sir John and Mrs Edwina Currie, which was introduced into what everyone now calls the narrative to liven things up on a dull day.
Mr Prescott has no need to liven things up any further. We have quite enough entertainment to keep us on our seats until the end of the parliamentary term and even the beginning of the conference season in September. Let us have a brief constitutional incident, which may have a soothing influence, like a sorbet after a rich dish; or it may achieve the opposite effect.
There is nothing sacred or mysterious about the office of Deputy Prime Minister. All Prime Ministers have deputies, whether unofficial or not, who fill in at Prime Minister's Questions when they are in foreign parts or stay at home to mind the sweet shop, often for weeks at a time, when they are off on their holidays. The season is approaching - it is virtually upon us - when Mr Tony Blair will be disporting himself vigorously on the tennis court at someone else's expense, to the accompaniment of equally lively expression of opinion on the part of our great national newspapers.
Mr Blair's long annual holiday is now a fixed part of the social calendar, coming as it does between the tennis at Wimbledon and the final Test. But the convention has been established - it is itself part of the season - that Mr Prescott should have his finger on the holiday button, though I doubt whether he would be allowed anywhere near it.
Deputy PMs come and go. Since 1945 there have been only seven of them: Herbert Morrison, Anthony Eden, R A Butler, William Whitelaw, Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine, last - and, one is tempted to add, least - Mr Prescott. There is learned dispute about whether Labour, under the party's new constitution, requires a deputy PM. The last to be appointed under Labour, leaving a 46-year-long gap, was Morrison.
There is a similar argument about whether the deputy leader can be appointed by the Cabinet with the National Executive Committee. But this is a piece of sleight-of-hand by Mr Prescott's friends - or, rather, by those of Mr Prescott's supporters who do not want to embarrass Mr Blair any further.
There is no question but that the vacancy can be filled until the annual conference. After that, there must be an election. It is as simple - or, which is the way with Labour politics, it is as complicated - as that.
There has been some talk in recent weeks of following the George Brown precedent. In March 1968 he resigned as foreign secretary (he was never Deputy Prime Minister) but continued as deputy leader of the party till 1970. In his way, Brown could be as shame-making as Mr Prescott. On one occasion, at a diplomatic reception and in an advanced stage of inebriation, he requested the honour of the next dance with the Cardinal-Archbishop of Lima.
Mr Prescott has not gone quite as far as this; or perhaps he has. Who can tell? His strongest defence is that he is consorting with various unsavoury characters - in the traditional Labour phrase - to bring work to the regions. There is an abundance of evidence, a luxury of examples, to the effect that Mr Blair will always intervene in the interests of rich companies or rich men; and, where Mr Blair goes, so Mr Prescott follows.
It is not that either of them is personally corrupt but both of them like to surround themselves with the accoutrements of rich men or, if you prefer, rich companies. Neither of them likes to sit down of an evening with a good book. Accordingly Mr Prescott, as he tells us, has different tastes. He prefers to spend the time with a good bookie.
In 1994, Mr Prescott was elected deputy leader as keeper of the cloth cap. There is something here of the alliance of Margaret Thatcher and Whitelaw: both relationships had an element of convenience about them. While Whitelaw looked back to the days of "One Nation'' Toryism, or people thought he did, Mr Prescott heard his own ancestral voices, or somebody did. In reality the influence of Mr Prescott was as tangential as Whitelaw's had been, and both were present for reasons of cosmetics and presentation.
But the scene has changed. Mr Prescott has exchanged one function for another. Where once Mr Prescott was Mr Blair's protector, so now is he Mr Gordon Brown's facilitator. Nothing must be allowed to go wrong by Mr Blair until Mr Brown smoothly ascends, to expressions of happy approval all round.
Hence the alarm surrounding the latest smart-money candidate, Mr Alan Johnson, not as a successor to Mr Blair but to Mr Prescott. Mr Blair's and Mr Prescott's friends are putting it about that his American jaunt was authorised by the deputy PM's permanent private secretary. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Philip Mawer, has announced that he is investigating the case. Even Mr Speaker Martin has intervened to protect Mr Prescott from further inquiry from the floor. It looks to me as if No 10 is plotting for Mr Blair and Mr Prescott to leave at the same time and both in reasonably good order.Reuse content