Step Forward the Unlikely Political Hero of the Summer: John Prescott. His Weaknesses Have Become Strengths, Because He Is So Palpably Not One of the No 10 In-Crowd

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In this hot, remorseless August, amid the astonishing spectacle of Lord Hutton's inquiry burrowing into the entrails of the very recent political past like paparazzi going through so much celebrity garbage, only one politician has so far emerged with any credit. John Leslie Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, entitled since May to draw a state pension, has acquired an unfamiliar lustre as a politician with human values. In a world of hard-faced men and women who have done well out of new Labour, this humanity may be the quality that rescues the fortunes of the left.

Everyone knows Prezzer. He's the jester at the court of King Tony, the licensed fool who's so peripheral to the serious business of government that he can, with impunity, punch a voter or wave two fingers at the media. Despite his two Jags, he is, spiritually, new Labour's white van man. "John is John," said the PM, after the "two jabs" incident during the last election, "and I'm lucky to have him as my deputy."

Each August for the past six years, as the bosses headed for the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, Prezzer got his break. He was in charge as acting prime minister. Everyone knew that really he was the nightwatchman, the caretaker whose judgements could, if necessary, be overruled. He was a senior politician not senior enough--in that litmus test beloved of the Daily Mail--to launch a nuclear missile.

This August, he has played a different role. After five summers memorable for one good joke (that one about the crab called Peter), he finally got the chance to play to his strength: his credibility. When he apologised for the behind-the-hand Walter Mitty smear on Dr David Kelly, delivered in a conversation between the PM's official spokesman and a lobby correspondent from the Independent, the nation knew he meant it. When, two days later, he went to Kelly's funeral--at the request of the dead man's family, the sole government representative--his sympathetic presence symbolised the national disquiet about the treatment meted out by politicians to a public servant. It is hard to imagine any other leading cabinet minister having quite the same effect.

Prescott, MP for Hull East for 33 years, is said to regard himself as Blair's Bevin, the authentic voice of the worker in the ear of the professional, middle-class Prime Minister. And no doubt No 10 is content to allow the party's core support to have the impression that there is someone at the heart of government with whom they might share a pint, or at least an interest in cars. …