Dominic Lawson: We expect no better of John Prescott

If a business leader behaved in the same way with a junior member of his staff, he would be kicked out
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The Independent Online

When John Prescott started an affair with his diary secretary it obviously did not occur to him just how dutiful she was in putting the events of the day down on paper. Sold to The Mail on Sunday for an estimated £250,000, the private diary of Tracey Temple is a sublime mixture of tumescence and train timetables: "He carried me into his bedroom and did everything he could to please me. I ended up catching the 10.50 train." "I had to go to his flat ... how we didn't look guilty when we went back I'll never know. Caught 8.20 train." "I had to take something to his flat, which he had left behind on purpose. He was standing just inside the door in his dressing gown which he took off straight away ... driver gave me a lift back to Waterloo, caught 8.20 train." And so - gloriously - on.

On Saturday night, when Mr Prescott's office had read the first edition of The Mail on Sunday, the Deputy Prime Minister put out a statement accusing Ms Temple of being "motivated by a desire to maximise financial gain". The implication was that his former lover had spiced up her account in order to get the most money. He must think the nation is turned on by train timetables.

As a matter of fact, Prescott is wrong in every respect. The News of the World had indicated to Ms Temple that it would pay up to £500,000 for her story. The newspaper, however, wanted to bypass her agent, Max Clifford - who if we had a written constitution would be described as Procurer Extraordinary to Her Majesty's Most Excellent Press. (Apparently Mr Clifford and the editor of the News of the World, Mr Andy Coulson, are in the midst of a great feud. I'm told it involves some breach of trust; these are both men greatly concerned with propriety.)

Mr Clifford will doubtless have warned Tracey Temple that while the News of the World was by some distance the highest bidder, it would expect the most lurid account imaginable in return for the freedom of Mr Rupert Murdoch's chequebook. The Mail on Sunday, however, is a newspaper acutely aware of the sensibilities of its respectable readership, and will not have wanted to print anything which would damage its hard-won reputation as a "family newspaper." Anyone who bought a copy last Sunday - and The Mail on Sunday went off-sale at 10am at my local newsagent, so great was the demand - will have noticed that the actual descriptions of sexual acts have been heavily bowdlerised. None more so than the incidents when Ms Temple gave the Deputy Prime Minister the full Lewinsky in his office, under the gaze of a portrait of Oliver Cromwell - although we are allowed to know that at such times "he would usually be going through his ministerial box, maybe something to do with regeneration, or the environment."

This last, delightful, detail may be the saving of Mr Prescott. After all, if there is a public interest here, it is not in the betrayal of Mrs Prescott - that is indeed a private matter. But the allegation that the Deputy Prime Minister is using the public purse to assist in his love life is quite another matter. After all, he was using Admiralty Arch - you know, the grace and favour residence which he didn't think was liable to council tax - in the way more respectable adulterers use seaside hotels. However, if it is indeed the case that Mr Prescott continued to read through official papers "on regeneration and the environment" whenever Ms Temple was attending to his unofficial needs, then he can make an excellent case that we, who pay for his office, his staff and his salary, are not being short-changed. (There are many others who would argue that Mr Prescott is doing much less harm when he is not appending his views to Government papers, but that is a matter of politics rather than propriety).

Feminists will say this is all beside the point: John Prescott was using his position of power for his own sexual gratification, and exploiting the vulnerability of a much younger employee. Perhaps that is what Sir Alistair Graham, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life meant when he pointedly alluded to the opening words of the Ministerial Code: "Ministers are expected to behave according to the highest standards of constitutional and personal conduct in the performance of their duties."

Sir Alistair's committee was originally set up by John Major, partly in response to the charges of "sleaze" levelled against the then Government by the Labour Party. This did not pacify John Prescott before he attained the privileges of office: at the 1996 Labour Party conference he derided the then Transport Minister, Steven Norris, for his sexual indiscretions and immediately went on to say: "After 17 years of this Tory government they have the audacity to talk about morality. For too many Tories morality means not getting caught. Morality is measured in more than just money. It's about right and wrong."

Perhaps it was the memory of this - and what Labour would have said if he had done as Prescott did - that provoked the last Conservative Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, to launch the bitterest attack: "This whole business of Mr Prescott's affair with his secretary is disgusting ... The post of Deputy Prime Minister gives you a very important part to play in the reputation and good governance of the UK. John Prescott can no longer do that job."

The stock defence of the political class to the calls for Mr Prescott's resignation is that the public should not, in this day and age, expect politicians to be judged by a higher standard of conduct in their personal lives than the rest of us. As a matter of fact, we don't. If a business leader had been discovered to have behaved in the same way with a junior member of his staff, he would have been kicked out. Indeed, that was exactly the fate last year of the chief executive of Boeing, Harry Stonecipher, who was sacked by the company's board when they learned that he had been conducting an affair with a junior Boeing executive, albeit one who was not reporting to him. Boeing's chairman, Leo Platt, declared that: "Harry's resignation was in no way related to the company's operational performance, which remains strong. However the CEO must set the highest standards for unimpeachable professional and personal behaviour."

I suspect that any leading British company or public institution would act in the same way. Mr Prescott will not be sacked precisely because we have come to accept lower standards of conduct from our politicians than we do from others in public life - and the Prime Minister no longer has the moral authority to do anything about it.

In any case, it would be a great shame if Mr Blair did ask Mr Prescott to resign. For as long as he remains Deputy Prime Minister, Tracey Temple will continue to find newspapers prepared to publish her thoughts - and I for one can't wait for the next side-splitting instalment.