A British university is instituting a research programme into the levels of pain suffered by whales, a friend mentioned hearing on the radio yesterday, adding that the report had put him in mind of John Prescott. You can certainly see why.
The man known` now to us as DPM, thanks to the schoolgirlish diaries of his paramour Ms Tracey Temple, was harpooned repeatedly in a quite brutal session in the Commons on Wednesday, when the range and volume of sly references aimed at him from both sides of the House made you wonder whether the latest revival of Carry On films announced that day is strictly necessary when our MPs are doing such a bang up job at belting out the double entendres.
Mr Prescott, in Bernard Bresslaw mode, inevitably managed to trump them all, by declaring without any attempt at self-mockery (never a strong point), in a stab at justifying his income, that Tony Blair had put him in charge of "domestic affairs". All it needs now is for Parliament's matron to dish a little more dirt via Max Clifford, one feels, and Peter Mandelson can bring his flaring nostrils back from Brussels to reprise his much-loved Kenneth Williams at once.
It is Mr Prescott's determination to continue in his non-post despite the anger and hilarity that raises the whale issue. Is the Humberside blubber mountain capable of feeling the pain of his situation at all, and if so to what extent? Anyone remotely normal would be so excruciated by the public mirth over his erotic escapades; so humiliated by the removal of his departmental duties; and so horror-struck by the unending row about the £600,000 annual package that resignation followed by immediate emigration would be automatic. He has even been made to look greedy and dishonourable by Charlie Clarke, for God's sake, who at least had the good grace to go rather than accept a demeaning loss of status.
Ask Mr Prescott what he plans to do about it, however, and the answer, aptly enough, is carry on. Bless his heart for the tenacity, but there comes a time when, however much amusement goading the old boy might provide (and it has been tremendous fun), the spectre of a wounded animal being remorselessly ridiculed transcends the border of low farce and enters the realm of public sadism. That time has clearly come.
It's true that Mr Prescott, unlike Moby Dick, is not the sort of noble and beautiful creature who invites the awe and respect of his would-be executioners. But he is a sentient being, of sorts, and capable surely of inciting our pity. Tony Blair, who enjoys that lethal brand of ruthlessness common to the ostentatious godly, has no such sympathy. The received wisdom about his disinclination to sack Mr Prescott completely is that he couldn't risk the potential domino effect of an election for Labour's deputy leadership. Doubtless there is something in that, but knowing Mr Blair's survivalist instincts so well you wonder whether there might have been another reason for leaving him in Dorneywood.
Ever since he came to power, this Prime Minister has exhibited something close to genius at deflecting the heat. Whatever their other important contributions to the governance of Britain (answers on the usual postcard, please), Mr Mandelson and Alastair Campbell were probably most invaluable to Mr Blair as lightning rods. Mandy went for the second time over the Hinduja brothers passport affair, while Ali departed following his role in misleading the country as to Saddam's weapons capabilities. Each of them was doing no more than obeying their master's voice, of course, yet at the time, these innately sinister and universally distrusted panto villains were the perfect people to draw the fire away from the PM.
Since then, it goes without saying, things have changed. The Teflon has turned to Velcro, and Mr Blair is stuck with the shifty, dishonest image he miraculously deflected for years. But old habits die hard, and however futile the tactic has become, he may think it useful to keep Mr Prescott to divert the perception of a government suffused by bungling idiocy.
Mr Blair is evidently capable of such icy cynicism. He has worn Mr Prescott for so long as a political fig leaf, to hide the shame of his unfettered free market instincts before the eyes of more traditionalist Labour members, that it would require a minor mental alteration to adapt him for use as a makeshift lightning rod.
If Mr Blair had another election to fight, DPM's retention would be an act of self-mutilation. Of all the Government's recent embarrassments, the Prescott open-door policy on office coitus is the one that resonated most with voters, according to local election canvassers, while the impression of iimperial arrogance produced by his ensuing sinecure could cost Labour some marginals at the next general election, and possibly a decisive number.
Yet increasingly the sight of Mr Blair clinging so gracelessly to office, still convinced of his unique fitness to lead, makes you wonder which party he secretly wants to see in power after the next election. If he has decided on the Samson option and intends to bring the temple down with him, the retention of Mr Prescott and its attendant hideous publicity seems a very cute way of further weakening the foundations.
I'm not sure whether this casts Mr Blair as Captain Ahab to DPM's Moby Dick (Measly Dick, more correctly, if Ms Temple is to be trusted), but if so the omens for Mr Prescott's career as lightning rod aren't too good, since Ahab had a scar down one side from being struck by lightning. And if all the myriad Prescott persecutors in Parliament and Press are the crew of the Pequod, maybe it's worth recalling that one of the predominant morals of Herman Melville's tale is that the thrill of the chase is infinitely more compelling than the moment of the kill.
This chase could endure a year or two yet, but it shouldn't. Whatever the university researchers discover about the pain thresholds of cetaceans, this particular whale has a far thinner skin than appearances suggest; and graceless, charmless, lecherous, bully boy spouter of incomprehensible drivel though he undoubtedly is, life as a national joke must be making him wretched.
If he cannot be liberated like the hero of Free Willy! (and no Cage Willy!, or Inordinately Overprice Willy! gags, if you please), and allowed to swim home to the Mouth of the Humber, he should be put out of his misery, and ours, as soon as possible. In recent months we have already witnessed one whale lost in the Thames, and its slow death was not pretty to behold. The one marooned way out of his depth in the Gothic building beside the Thames deserves a cleaner, swifter and less painful end.