Whatever rumours may have been circulating in the press about John Prescott's future, he will continue to create difficulties for political obituary writers. At first glance, that might seem surprising. The two Jags, the massacred syntax, the eggs and the punches provide no shortage of colour. But this is also a man who has held high office for a number of years, which is where the problems arise.
Anyone trying to move beyond the anecdotes to assess Mr Prescott's contribution to events will rapidly discover a problem with the evidence. There is none; there is no sign that he played any significant role in the evolution of the Blair government. Mr Prescott has been, as it were, a dignified part of the constitution, not an efficient one.
That is only one of the paradoxes of the Prescott career. In his earlier years in Parliament, he often had rows with men who should have been his natural associates; in the final phase, he became a dutiful subordinate to a prime minister with whom he had nothing in common.
During his first couple of decades as an MP, Mr Prescott was thought of as a left winger. But his allegiances were always social rather than ideological, and were usually determined by class grievances. Mr Prescott has never forgiven the education system for his failure to pass the 11-plus.
That story has two sides. After all, he was later able to enjoy five years of higher education. If he was still unable to speak his own language after five years at university, the 11-plus examiners may have been right. But that is not the view Mr Prescott takes, and class antagonism is still a driving force in his personality. The Blair government would find it easier to give away Gibraltar than to remove the Rock of Gibraltar-sized chips on each of Mr Prescott's shoulders.
His distrust of the middle classes used to extend to middle class socialists. That should not have prevented him from getting on with Jim Callaghan, yet he was unable to do so. He was equally incapable of working in harmony with Neil Kinnock. Here, the difficulties arose because of a clash of prickly vanities; Messrs Kinnock and Prescott were both too intellectually insecure to be at ease in one another's company. In those days, Mr Prescott was ready to see snubs and slights even before they were intended. Mr Prescott has always been thick skinned in his dealings with others and thin-skinned in their dealings with him.
In the mid-Eighties, while Kinnock was striving to modernise the Labour party – and overriding many of his own instincts – it was impossible to tell whether Mr Prescott was in favour of the changes or against them. His attitude was perennially coloured by personal resentments.
At that stage, most serious people in the Labour Party would have categorised him as the leader of the awkward cuss tendency. More formidable than most of his trade union drinking pals, he would have to be given a place in the Shadow Cabinet – and he was quite good at roughing up Tory ministers. But he would never be much use at the constructive aspects of preparing for government. This assessment of his abilities never altered; it was developments in the Labour Party which gave him a chance to move beyond the Shadow Cabinet. By the early Nineties, Labour MPs and activists had been made so malleable by defeat that the left's capacity – and even its willingness – to obstruct reform had been drastically eroded. The party was ready for Blairism, and, so it seemed, was Mr Prescott.
He appeared to have played a crucial role in persuading the party conference to accept Blairite proposals, such as scrapping Clause 4. In retrospect, however, it is not clear how important he was. In 1994, the Labour Party was so desperate to win, on almost any terms, that it was ready to allow Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson et al to fling most of its traditions on the nearest skip. If Mr Prescott had not existed, it might not have been necessary to invent him.
That said, victories always appear easier in hindsight than they did at the time to those who actually had to fight the battles. Mr Prescott had become the conscience of the old Labour Party. So his willingness to endorse Mr Blair's measures undoubtedly boosted the Blairites' morale, while ensuring that any revolt from residual leftist dissidents was even more half hearted than it would otherwise have been.
From then on, Mr Prescott was guaranteed a place at the top table. This did not mean that he enjoyed easy relations with Mr Blair's intimates. Mr Prescott was scornful of them; the Blairites were wary of him. He would refer to them as "the beautiful people", while the Blairites were constantly on the alert lest he would undermine their attempts at rebranding.
When Lyndon B Johnson was vice-president of the United States, President Kennedy's inner circle used to refer to him as "Uncle Cornpone". The Blairites had a similar view of Mr Prescott. They viewed the prospect of a Prescott public appearance with the same enthusiasm as an upwardly mobile, socially ambitious family would display when some obstinately proletarian relatives arrived in the middle of a dinner party.
On Labour propaganda, Mr Prescott's most important contribution was negative; he remained silent. But the same applied when it came to policy. In 1997, he was given a super-ministry, in charge of the environment, transport and the regions. Four years later his contribution on all of those great issues was easy to summarise: nil.
On transport, there was one basic problem. Given his own way, Mr Prescott would have indulged in nationalisation and heavy spending. But Gordon Brown was having none of that, and, for all his supposed political power, Mr Prescott proved incapable of getting his own way. As the transport problem moved on to the political agenda, Mr Blair quickly showed his opinion of Mr Prescott's ability to solve it. The PM began by sidelining him in favour of Gus (Lord) Macdonald. After the Election, he switched him to an honorific non-job at the Cabinet Office.
He will retain that non-job for the rest of this Parliament, as he will also retain the affection of the Labour conference. Whenever the Blairites want to distract the party activists' attention from troublesome issues, and to encourage them to indulge in schmaltz and sentiment, Uncle Cornpone Prescott will be applauded to the platform, to spend several minutes strangling the English language to the accompaniment of fervent applause. But that is all.
If anyone had predicted a few years ago that Mr Prescott would subside so easily into a non-job, in which his only consolation for the loss of political power would be the Jags and perquisites of office, he might have reacted as if they had thrown an egg at him. Yet that is what has happened.
When John Prescott finally leaves the Cabinet, he will only be ratifying a departure that has already substantially occurred. In real terms, he has never been a serious member of this Blairite government.Reuse content