The Sketch: Prescott's Honourable Member gets into another fine mess

Click to follow
The Independent Online

With the Prime Minister in Madrid his stand-in did the stand-up. That is, Fthe party deputy leaders squared up to each other as far as their magnificent curves would allow.

With the Prime Minister in Madrid his stand-in did the stand-up. That is, Fthe party deputy leaders squared up to each other as far as their magnificent curves would allow.

When people say that John Prescott isn't as nice as he looks, I always defend him. "No!" I say. And "That can't be true!" And "I don't believe it!"

The more you defend him the worse the stories become (such is life in politics). I've only exchanged a few words with him, myself. Once, he waddled past us into a select committee room with the words: "Come to pour another bucket of shit over Parliament?" How unfair, we thought, we only bring the bucket, after all.

In the chamber, however, he is at his most attractive. Well aware of his limitations, he stands up amid the cheers and jeers with a long chuckle.

When he speaks his friends hold their breath until he emerges from the sentence he's embarked on (there have been some deaths). It's like watching a waiter with two loaded trays ice-skating for the first time.

The assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin by Israel on Monday was "an in, an illy, illegal, it was an illegal act and really should not have taken place and will in fact make it much worse". Really? As Americans say, "Y'think?" Mr Prescott told the House that the only solution was "to talk the table".

But the fact is that he very rarely descends to our expectations. Somehow he emerges with his dignity intact, if that's the right phrase. The only person who's rattled him in the past four years has been Angela Browning. She asked in a severe, schoolma'm manner: "There are five tests for joining the euro. What are they?" Professor Stanley Unwin on acid would have made a better fist of the economics.

There was one phrase we can add to the Prescott lexicon. When he got confused between "my Honourable Friend" and "the Honourable Member", he said: "My Honourable Member has pointed out ..." followed by enough material to keep Max Miller on the stage for a fortnight.

The fact that it doesn't matter much what Mr Prescott says is a disturbing reflection on the House of Commons.

Harriet Harman responded to an Urgent Question in language even harder to follow than Mr Prescott's. Sarah Harman, a solicitor and the minister's sister, had given her confidential papers which bore on a court of appeal case, and this had hit the news. Ms Harman hasn't got Mr Prescott's intellectual problems, rather the reverse, but her answers were even more opaque than his. As we now know, this doesn't matter.

But when she let it be known her legal adviser had changed his advice to her, a ripple of indignation ran through the Opposition. Peter Lilley asked whether this was an example of the new governmental doctrine: if advice is successful the minister takes the credit; if not, the official is blamed. Ministers as diverse as Stephen Byers and Tony Blair have used this device, and Mr Lilley will do well to keep pointing it out.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

Comments