Deborah Orr: Prescott's defiance shows how little he knows of the people he claims to be serving

His sulky defence of his right to hump secretaries and pin women to the wall in sexual passes is contemptible
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The list of responsibilities undertaken by his department of nearly a decade reads like a roll-call of failure, with Labour's greatest betrayal - the refusal to provide enough adequate housing for the ordinary working people he says he represents - at the very top.

The progress of his party while he had been its deputy prime minister - it has haemorrhaged members as quickly as it has guiding principles - is testament to his uselessness as a standard-bearer for "Old Labour" values.

If anything, in fact, he has been New Labour's willing decoy - mouth stuffed with gold, he has stood around for years pretending to represent the values of the "working class", while actually providing nothing more than a barely adequate smokescreen for its pauperisation, ridicule and destruction.

Tony Blair's sad need for such a deputy is the only reason why he is still in the Government at all.

The descriptions of sexual misdemeanours undertaken while he did those jobs sound as much like the droit-de-seigneur adventures of a country-squire baddie from a Catherine Cookson novel as they do the heady adventures of a salty seaman turned big fish. It is certainly a pity that the rest of the nation took part so joyously in his Benny Hill activities by rushing to the media window and gawking pruriently. But only because that shows how reluctant the entire population is to debate sexual morality with the seriousness it deserves.

This newsprint-led culture of sniggering, childish, misogynistic idiocy has provided john Prescott with just the excuse he needs to cast himself not as an adult responsible for his own grave errors, but as a victim of a cynical campaign against him. It does indeed come to something when all of the above disasters are less of a threat to a man's position and lifestyle than his decision to play croquet on a Thursday. This is, however, because it exposes the media as being, on the whole, just as morally cowardly as Prescott himself.

What we have seen in the past few weeks is now familiar. John Prescott's slow political death may have begun with the revelation of an affair. But even those whose agenda calls for a return to old notions of strict, and strictly hypocritical, sexual morality know the straightforward suggestion that adultery should lose a politician his job is no longer the clever way of achieving that end. Politicians in this country are still expected to pay for their casual affairs. But the callow sophistication of prevailing sexual attitudes is such that few people want to be seen as prudish and self-righteous enough to say so.

Even Christine McCafferty, the Labour MP who has been most forthright in her condemnation of Prescott's sexual conduct, was careful to cast her worries in terms of votes lost. "It's clear to me that many women voters in particular are very unhappy that John is still in his post," she told the BBC. "It does seem as though he is benefiting, not to say being rewarded, when he has clearly breached, perhaps in some people's eyes, a moral code."

I love that final qualification. How can a moral code that exists "perhaps in some people's eyes" be "clearly breached". It can't, of course. Adultery is now a quaintly old-fashioned descriptive term, used only by churchmen and other judgemental moralists. It is not a breach of a moral code, or even a defining constraint within marriage. Spouses who commit adultery are no longer considered to have undertaken an act that is contradictory to the spirit of their publicly celebrated relationship.

An adulterer is no longer considered to be legally or morally at fault within a marriage. So what is wrong with the people, such as the women voters McCafferty frets about, who will not accept this exciting consequence of the sexual revolution?

Maybe they are the sort of Labour-supporting women voters who see the consequences of liberal sexual mores, not just among the lucky and capable people who can and do make functioning families out of all sorts of interesting and civilised sexual arrangements, blending half-siblings and step-siblings with cousins, friends and lovers delightfully, to make extended families of warmth, richness and safety (sometimes). Maybe they see what happens among the people with less access to mental and physical health, to money, to education and to networks of sophisticated support, whose own attempts at extended families are rather less superficially pretty.

In his memoir of adoption, a writer, who goes by the pseudonym John Houghton, describes what it was like to become the father of three children who were castaways from the latter sort of extended family.

The eldest child had been sexually abused by the father of his half-siblings, and their mother had failed to protect him. The third child, a girl, had been removed from her mother within days of her birth, so at risk was she deemed to be. The girl, even in a new "forever family", did not escape her fate. Her adoptive parents eventually realised that the oldest boy was doing to her what had been done to him. The mother, by the way, had four more children by four more different fathers, and has apparently hung on to them due to a massive degree of social-worker support.

At one point in the book, A Forever Family: A True Story Of Adoption (Faber & Faber), the writer says that he and his wife simply had not realised before the adoption what sheltered lives they had led. They were forced, for the sake of their children, to peep into what they described as "darkness" and hated what they saw. "Out here [in the darkness], violence is almost the norm, and much of it is directed against women and children. Sexuality is governed by different codes, and sometimes appears to be governed by no code at all. There are families here with a tradition of incest that goes back generations. There are men who have had children by a score of women, and men who have had children by three different generations of women in a single family."

All this may seem a far cry from Prescott, who brought up his children, and provided for his wife, and who appears to have been given the nod from her to pursue his sexual hobbies. But it is not. It is the ordinary working people he prides himself on representing who end up drawn into the burgeoning world of "no code at all", or living cheek by jowl with it, watching as its damaged children damage their own in turn.

Prescott's defiant and sulky defence of his right to pat bottoms and hump secretaries, or pin women to the wall in sexual passes, is contemptible. That he does not understand why is just one more weary reminder that he knows nothing of the country he's supposed to be serving.