WHATEVER RUMOURS may have been circulating in the press about John Prescott's future, he will continue to create difficulties for political obituary writers. At first glance, that might seem surprising. The two Jags, the massacred syntax, the eggs and the punches provide no shortage of colour. But this is also a man who has held high office for a number of years, which is where the problems arise.
Anyone trying to move beyond the anecdotes to assess Mr Prescott's contribution to events will rapidly discover a problem with the evidence. There is none; there is no sign that he played any significant role in the evolution of the Blair government. Mr Prescott has been, as it were, a dignified part of the constitution, not an efficient one.
That is only one of the paradoxes of the Prescott career. In his earlier years in Parliament, he often had rows with men who should have been his natural associates; in the final phase, he became a dutiful subordinate to a prime minister with whom he had nothing in common.
During his first couple of decades as an MP, Mr Prescott was thought of as a left winger. But his allegiances were always social rather than ideological, and were usually determined by class grievances. Mr Prescott has never forgiven the education system for his failure to pass the 11- plus.
That story has two sides. After all, he was later able to enjoy five years of higher education. If he was still unable to speak his own language after five years at university, the 11-plus examiners may have been right. But that is not the view Mr Prescott takes, and class antagonism is still a driving force in his personality. The Blair government would find it easier to give away Gibraltar than to remove the Rock of Gibraltar-sized chips on each of Mr Prescott's shoulders.
His distrust of the middle classes used to extend to middle class socialists. That should not have prevented him from getting on with Jim Callaghan, yet he was unable to do so. He was equally incapable of working in harmony with Neil Kinnock. Here, the difficulties arose because of a clash of prickly vanities; Messrs Kinnock and Prescott were both too intellectually insecure to be at ease in one another's company. In those days, Mr Prescott was ready to see snubs and slights even before they were intended. Mr Prescott has always been thick skinned in his dealings with others and thin-skinned in their dealings with him.
In the mid-Eighties, while Kinnock was striving to modernise the Labour party - and overriding many of his own instincts - it was impossible to tell whether Mr Prescott was in favour of the changes or against them. His attitude was perennially coloured by personal resentments.
At that stage, most serious people in the Labour Party would have categorised him as the leader of the awkward cuss tendency. More formidable than most of his trade union drinking pals, he would have to be given a place in the Shadow Cabinet - and he was quite good at roughing up Tory ministers. But he would never be much use at the constructive aspects of preparing for government. This assessment of his abilities never altered; it was developments in the Labour Party which gave him a chance to move beyond the Shadow Cabinet. By the early Nineties, Labour MPs and activists had been made so malleable by defeat that the left's capacity - and even its willingness - to obstruct reform had been drastically eroded. The party was ready for Blairism, and, so it seemed, was Mr Prescott.
He appeared to have played a crucial role in persuading the party conference to accept Blairite proposals, such as scrapping Clause 4. …