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June 04, 2008

Be careful where you sit when you are in the company of John Prescott, warns Harry Phibbs: Prezza: Pulling no Punches - John Prescott with Hunter Davies

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Prezza: Pulling No Punches
by John Prescott with Hunter Davies
London: Headline Review, 2008
Hardback, 18.99

The disclosure that John Prescott engaged the services of a ghost writer for his memoirs will come as one of the least startling news items of 2008 so far. More of a surprise is that I don't think Hunter Davies had his work cut out. The book reads very much like a transcript of taped interviews. Clarity is provided by short, staccato sentences. Grammatical errors have been corrected.

But where Davies has been slack is in letting through a lot of error, duplication and sometimes contradiction. On page 268 we have praise for the Press Complaints Commission. Peter Mandelson had offered "good advice" to call them in over his wife Pauline's secret love child. On Page 355 he calls them the Press Complaints Council and decides they are "useless".

At least Davies's idleness means the authenticity shines through.

Reading the book means hearing Prescott speaking the words in your head. For that added authenticity Davies even left in all the swear words. He doesn't talk about his affair with his secretary Tracey Temple - apart from the political and media fall out resulting.

It is something of a relief that the sordid details of Prescott the seducer did not make it into print. But in other respects this reads like a candid account. Boastful and self justificatory inevitably but with space given to all the agonising humiliations and episodes of self doubt.

So what was John Prescott for? Some initiatives he claims as successes, such as the Dome and regional assemblies are, shall we say questionable. He casts himself in the role of diplomat but this is unconvincing. The suggestion that he was a peace maker between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown might have something in it but what difference did he really make? As Prescott acknowledges they both came to the conclusion that their interests were best served by hanging on. Brown didn't want to resign. Blair didn't want to sack him.

Prescott's other feeling of diplomatic triumph was over the Kyoto Treaty. Nurtured by his years as a trade union shop steward Prescott secured a deal by staying awake and getting everyone else to split the difference. But if he hadn't been there who is to say a better agreement might not have been secured based on the merits of the argument?

Prescott's image is very much as being from the Left. There is his class war rhetoric, his personal antagonism to Conservatives, his republicanism and contempt for establishment hierarchies - apart from those in the labour movement. But on substance he doesn't seem to have been as much of a check on Tony Blair as might have been expected. He claims privatisation of air traffic control as one of his successes. He was pragmatic about public private partnerships. He never resigned.

Prescott has a robust sense of humour and is happy to make snap personal judgements about people. For instance when Prescott was made Deputy Prime Minister his administrative capacity was regarded so highly that he was given charge of a huge department - the merger of Environment and Transport. This meant he had two Permanent Secretaries to choose from. He turned down the one from Transport on the grounds that he had failed a key test when visiting with his deputy when Prescott was Shadow Transport Secretary. Prescott says:

Mine wasn't a big office so we had difficulty finding chairs. We laid out an armchair and a pouffe, wondering who would choose which. The permanent secretary chose the pouffe while his number two sat in the chair. That gave me an insight into his character. The top men should always act like the top men. I thought, if I ever became a minister, I wouldn't want him as my permanent secretary.
Was he really serious that this was the basis of which the poor man was turned down for the job? I think he was.

I found myself curiously fascinated by the disclosure of tensions Prescott found having as a flat mate his fellow Labour MP Dennis Skinner in the 1970s and 1980s. They lived in accommodation owned by the National Union of Seamen in Clapham. Prescott says:

We had one or two differences. I wanted a phone installed straight away, so I could be in touch with Pauline and the boys, my union contacts, or people involved in my various campaigns, but he didn't want one. He didn't want to be bothered in the flat. He loved watching sport on the TV, especially football or snooker. I always wanted to watch current affairs programmes, like Newsnight. Over the years we had quite a few disagreements about the TV.
But Prescott sought to smooth things over with the odd kindly gesture.
I often gave Dennis a lift to the House in my Jaguar. Which raised a few eyebrows. There was a short spell when I had a Rover. It was rubbish: the electrics were always breaking down. I went back to the Jaguar.
I confess to missing John Prescott. I used to find it entertaining sitting in the bath listening to him on the Today programme bellowing out denunciations of "press prattle."

I suspect he will still pop up from time to time. Arise, Lord Prescott? The old tease is keeping us guessing. He says: Will I go to the Lords? I know that previous deputy prime ministers, like Willie Whitelaw and Michael Heseltine, went straight there. Pauline would like me to, but I'm not thinking about it at the moment. I've always been against too much flunkery and titles and all that. I'm quite happy for now to be a back-bench MP, till this Parliament finishes. We'll see what happens. We will indeed.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and a Conservative Councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham. The views expressed above are those of Harry Phibbs, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

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