Steward, rabble-rouser, statesman: John Prescott's rise above self-doubt

Colin Brown on the deputy prime minister
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The Independent Online
John Prescott has made the journey from Cunard bar steward to chief shop steward in the Blair Cabinet with the ease of one grown accustomed to power since the Labour landslide on 1 May. He arrives in Brighton this week as one of the stars of Labour's celebratory annual conference, a changed man, having matured in office.

A year ago, he was pilloried by John Major and some in the press as the man most likely to blow up in Labour's election campaign. Last week, the Daily Mail carried the headline: "Q: What makes this politician different? A: Unlike most, he once had a real job." Underneath was a photograph of the Deputy Prime Minister, looking serious. Praise for Prescott from the Daily Mail is a measure of his journey from Labour rabble-rouser to Cabinet heavyweight.

This was no overnight transformation. He was committed to the Blair-Mandelson modernising project, sceptically at first - most notably over the change to Clause Four. But he nursed self-doubts, which hampered his own performance.

Lack of confidence, and sensitivity to criticism, has been a recurring theme in Prescott's life. It stems from his famously mangled syntax, and a lack of formal education, although by dint of hard work on a correspondence course, he got to Ruskin College and took a degree at Hull University, as a mature student. However, his election as deputy leader in 1994 marked the turning point, and it was assumed that he would be the Deputy Prime Minister, if Labour won office.

I have discovered that in spite of his election as Blair's deputy, Prescott insisted on getting Blair to put in writing that he would be given the number two post in government. It was not the first time Prescott had asked for a leader's promise in writing - he did so when Neil Kinnock agreed in the Eighties to hold a conference debate on the deputy leadership, a promise which Kinnock subsequently broke.

The written agreement from Blair came at an explosive moment when the pair had their most serious row, in spring 1995. Prescott was about to board a train at Doncaster for London, which Blair would join at Newark, when he discovered that a crucial economic strategy meeting had been held by Blair and the young Turks with Gordon Brown, then shadow Chancellor, at the New Forest home of Chris Powell, an advertising executive and brother of Jonathan Powell, head of Blair's private office.

Prescott rang Joy Johnson, a respected TV journalist who had been hired as a media handler by the party, to confirm the story. She did so and the deputy leader went into orbit.

Though Prescott was later assured that his exclusion had been an oversight that would not be repeated, he believed they had met secretly to avoid his finding out about key economic decisions until it was too late.

The leader and his deputy were due to meet on the London train to thrash out Blair's plans for reforming Clause Four of the party constitution, on which Prescott's support was vital. Prescott knew that his exclusion from the meeting went to the heart of the two men's relationship. He was prepared to be loyal to Blair, but their relationship had to be built on trust.

Blair bounced on to the train, oblivious to the impending storm, and approached Prescott all smiles with hand outstretched. Prescott hit him with both Prescott barrels: "Sit down ..." said the deputy.

If their relationship was to work, Prescott felt he had to clear the air and do some plain speaking to establish his own role, and make it clear that it was intolerable to be kept out of the "loop". Their leadership double-act was in the balance. Blair must have known that Prescott could become a deadly opponent of the modernisation project.

For an hour or so, they thrashed out Prescott's position in a Blair government as the train made its way to London. It is unclear what other passengers must have thought as the pair had their frankest exchange since winning the leadership elections. Prescott, as he had with Kinnock, made Blair set down their agreement in writing. He still has the hand-written note saying he would be Deputy Prime Minister. I have not seen it, but knowing Prescott, I have not the slightest hesitation in believing it exists.

When they reached London, Blair said they should go to his home in Islington to sort out the Clause Four strategy. When Cherie came into the room, she said, "Oh, I didn't think you'd be here." "Nor did I love," said Prescott.

Before he left, he ensured the note was safely in his pocket. This incident will be seen as a mark of Prescott's lack of confidence at that time, but the relationship between the deputy and the leader was, in the long run, strengthened by the fire of Prescott's anger. He went into the election relaxed about his position; he covered 10,222 miles in the Prescott express, train, boat - a barge in Chester - plane and car; he wore out a pair of shoes, and hardly put a foot wrong.

He had nursed the ambition of being a deputy prime minister with the freewheeling power across Whitehall enjoyed by Michael Heseltine, including a hand on the economic levers at the Treasury, jealously guarded by the shadow Chancellor. But Brown had Blair's total backing, and would not accept Prescott's demands for a deputy role without portfolio.

The issue came to a head earlier this year when Prescott agreed to be interviewed on Breakfast with Frost. The deputy leader knew he would be questioned about his future role and went to Blair to sort it out. Blair flatly refused the Heseltine role, and persuaded him that it would be a mistake to be a minister without portfolio. Prescott later said that being overruled by Blair was the best thing that could have happened to him. They discussed several ministerial options including Prescott as Foreign Secretary, a role assigned to Robin Cook. He declined the Home Secretary role, not least because the accompanying security would have made Pauline, his wife, a prisoner in her own home.

He liked the idea of taking over a new department, combining his old interests, the environment, covering local government, transport, and the regions. The merged department, on issues where he had proven skills in Opposition, was seen as a "super ministry" and Prescott would be at its head as Deputy Prime Minister.

Prescott had thought that Labour would win the election but never dared dream it would be by a landslide. As he approached the door to Number 10 on 2 May, he waved to the cameras and said: "I waited years for this." It was the first ministerial rank he had held since entering the Commons as an MP 27 years earlier.

"It just captured the moment," he told me later. "It said to lots of people in the party, who have waited a bloody long time for this, something about the sheer pleasure of the moment. My face has communicated most of my politics and it said it all. It was just the sheer joy and pleasure that it had been a long, hard road and it was over."

`Fighting Talk', the biography of John Prescott by Colin Brown is published in paperback by Pocket Books, Simon and Schuster, price pounds 6.99