The Sketch: How the deputy PM made us all feel rather shabby

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Here we are, in the low point of a third term, taxes rising, billions wasted, sleaze all around, the Prime Minister being investigated by the Metropolitan Police - and the Tories' cleverest is defeated, not just easily but tidily, by the Prime Minister's deputy. Defeated by the Government's Id, the big instinctual thing that is John Prescott. What do we make of it?

In the Prime Minister's absence, a pale stranger (William Hague) had landed two or three belters on the Deputy Prime Minister (old, stupid and doesn't pay council tax).

Then, a supplementary he'd prepared earlier: "That answer had so little English in it, it would have pleased President Chirac!" Low spirits laughed, but there was something unkind in their merriment which I can't say I cared for. I'm too generous, as politicians say. It's my only fault.

Mr Hague returned to his theme - the Government was withdrawing a £200 election bribe as the election was over. Wasn't this the sort of thing that made people cynical about politics? The Big Id came back with an innovative blend of humility, victimised dignity and a rather brilliant punch line. It went, roughly: "I get me words wrong, I'm not big on the grammar, that's my education and I'm responsible for it. But the Honourable Member opposite has bad judgement. 'Lord Archer is an honest man!' That's what he said. So when it comes to it, I'd rather have my problem than his!"

This remark got an enormous cheer, as you might imagine. So it is that we clever, proper-college tormentors of Mr Prescott can be made to feel quite shabby.

Mr Hague's shaven head started to give off a glow. His whole skull was blushing, right round to the nape of his neck.

On he went, the Big Id. He chuckled, he charmed, he made folksy reference to his reputation ("my sometimes colourful life") but he absolutely flattened the Opposition. He taunted Mr Hague into saying: "At least I got through the 2001 election without punching anyone." And Mr Hague had walked into a terrific wallop: "Yes, I thought there was an end to Punch and Judy politics, but if I'm Mr Punch, what does that make him?"

Mr P finished with a reference to Mr Hague's famous conference speech that looked forward to the dire economic effects of a Labour government.

"A Labour government has meant great personal prosperity for himself," Prescott said, to a big intake of breath, followed by another huge cheer.

I don't doubt that most of the barbs and shafts were pre-prepared (Mr P read many from his notes), but the important thing is this: Labour still does the work.

If Prescott out-performs Hague in debate - better prepared, better armed, with a firmer grasp of party values - what does that say about the state of the Tories? "I'd rather have our problems than theirs," as Labour might, correctly, say.