John Prescott: Sinking Fast

By Ashley, Jackie | New Statesman (1996), May 7, 2001 | Go to article overview

John Prescott: Sinking Fast


Ashley, Jackie, New Statesman (1996)


His old Labour credentials once made him indispensable, but now the Deputy Prime Minister's star is waning. What went wrong?

"Prescott hits the buffers," screams the Sun, with a prediction that the Deputy Prime Minister, the hero of old Labour, will be demoted to the Cabinet Office to serve out his sunset years before being booted upstairs to the Lords. It was hardly the Sun's greatest scoop -- it has been Westminster gossip for months that John Prescott will leave the unwieldy Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) after the election. But is it really the end for him? And if so, how has Labour's living, breathing representative of the working classes become so expendable? Remember, this was the man who rescued John Smith from a crushing defeat over one member, one vote at the party conference. This was the man whose name on Tony Blair's leadership ticket pushed Blair over the finishing line. So where's the payback now?

Prescott himself would put it differently. After four years running a big spending department, he wants to put his experience of co-ordinating different strands of policy to use in a revamped Cabinet Office -- a Prime Minister's Office in all but name. He sees the need for heads to be banged together, and he won't shirk from banging them. But is he really, as some MPs and commentators are saying, a busted flush?

The case for Prescott is not difficult to make, but it is patchy. Inside the government, he represents a vital part of the labour movement as nobody else can. Gordon Brown is the nearest, with his strong trade union networking; but no Scot can claim to understand the heart of English labourism. Indeed, Prescott's core achievement, which is to have secured from the Treasury a huge ten-year programme for transport renewal, depended entirely on one of the most under-reported but vital relationships in the 1997-2001 government, the Prescott-Brown pact. In return, Prescott has allowed Brown free range to act, in effect, as the deputy prime minister, running across domestic policy unhindered by the official deputy. He has also backed the Chancellor to the hilt in his feud with Ken Livingstone over how to fund the London Tube system.

Yet in the crucial first two Budgets of the new government, health and education, not transport, got the modest amount of extra spending that was available. The result was that, throughout this parliament, transport has been a disaster area for the government, from the rail disasters to clogged roads to the long squabble over the Underground. Prescott can justifiably point to his long-term promise on transport renewal, but today's travellers are equally justified in raging at him.

Outside transport, Prescott's big achievement, the post-Kyoto politics of global warming, has been brutally knocked aside by something he certainly cannot be blamed for -- the arrival of a US president in hock to "Big Oil" and more concerned with paying back his political debts to American business than with the future of the world's climate. Diplomacy may not be Prescott's strong point (as he showed in his unhappy contretemps with the French foreign minister, culminating in one of his memorable lines: "A chauvinist, moi?"). Yet in the balance of history, he will go down as one of those negotiators, trained in the British union movement, who was far better on the international stage than his detractors expected.

The case for the defence, however, depends on not asking whether he could have done better. Don't forget that Prescott was once seen as a Titan in the making. He had given his supporters hope that, like another working-class union leader turned Labour Cabinet minister, he could be a commanding figure. Yet no one today would call him the Ernie Bevin of the early 2000s. The most that can be said is that his support has allowed Blair to pursue his agenda without a horrific fracture in the party. The left will not forgive Prescott for that. …

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