As Tony Blair limps towards the end of his tenure, the controversy over John Prescott, his deputy prime minister and the ruling party's deputy leader, who was 68 this week, is a reminder that oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them. Prescott's promise on Wednesday night to vacate Dorneywood, the 200-acre, 21-room grace and favour mansion from which he had earlier refused to budge, is probably too little too late to save New Labour.
My first response to the telltale media pictures was that the revolution must have triumphed and the class war been won if a railway signalman's son could play croquet on Dorneywood's sweeping lawns on a Thursday afternoon when honest men should be at work. Then I thought that the message was that the revolution had failed and the class war was lost. On the day he was caught playing croquet, Prescott was supposed to be standing in for his boss who, back from an energizing session with George W. Bush, was holidaying at the Tuscan villa of an Italian nobleman, Prince Girolamo Strozzi. Many feel it was just as well that Prescott wasn't in Number 10 trying to run the country.
That he has been sleeping for two years with a female secretary, Tracey Temple, is neither here nor there in Cool Britannia. The outrage is over the young lady's admission in a Sunday paper (no doubt for a handsome fee) that they were at it in the office, behind the door, under the table, in the cupboard, you name the place and they were at it there. It's not the unbridled and unorthodox sex that shocks. What does is the violation of regulations.
The 1,000-page Handbook for the Deputy Prime Minister's Office, issued as recently as March 31 this year, expressly forbids 'inappropriate use of official time, information and resources'. What could be more inappropriate use of official facilities than this unending romp' Adultery and fornication are all right providing they are not on official premises in office time. The handbook also explicitly forbids 'touching' which, says Tracey, was how their sexual encounters usually began.
'The guide applies to civil servants, not ministers' is the prim retort of a loyal Prescott aide. Being above the codes they set for lowly bureaucrats, ministers are at liberty to do what they will wherever and whenever they will. It's called political licence. Civil servants can also do as they like but only in their own time and place. They must not touch each other, leave alone commit adultery or indulge in fornication, in office time in official premises. Ah! retort the sticklers for rules, what about a minister who aids and abets secretarial violation' Tracey is a junior civil servant. She breached the handbook. Since it takes two to clap'or whatever, Prescott must share at least half the blame.
Perhaps Prescott would not have been such a hot topic from John o' Groats to Land's End if politics had something more substantive to offer. Under its reckless trivial pursuits, the great British public still retains vestigial memories of the discourse that inspired the mother of democracies which, in turn, inspired the world. It would not otherwise have voted for the anniversary of Magna Carta, forced on King John by rebel barons in 1215, as the new national day to celebrate Britishness. Instead of choosing a stirring football victory, voters selected a day that enshrines ideas of liberty, democracy and constitutionalism and acquired a global resonance.
So, a light flickers faintly still under the bushel of trivia. There could even be an explanation, if not excuse, for the trivia. With domestic matters out of a lame duck government's control and foreign policy in the safekeeping of Blair's good friend in the White House, there really is nothing else to occupy the mind. Bush has done for Blair what no therapist could have managed. British voters may not have forgiven their prime minister for invading Iraq and bringing death to so many brave young Britons, but the invasion's painfully protracted aftermath has created for him the blissful illusion of an imperial high noon.
Savouring that feeling, Blair dashed off to Baghdad recently to tell Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's new prime minister who had the temerity to demand the withdrawal of coalition troops, to pipe down. Now, British analysts are discussing Iraq's future with a solemnity that suggests that they really believe that Britain has some hold on warring Sunnis, Shias and Kurds or the people who really might influence them ' Iranians, Saudis, Turks, Jordanians and Islamists everywhere. It was an appropriate delusion that the 50th anniversary of Anthony Eden's Suez adventure was celebrated this week like a glorious victory.
It could also be a delusion that Oxbridge media grandees are out for Prescott's blood because he is, as he puts it, a 'bloke of the people'. But people, not just an obsessive media, do see an anomaly in the government's working class pin-up boy's liking for luxury. He is not the only one. But Prescott's reputation for expensive tastes, apparent in nicknames like 'champagne socialist' and 'Two Jags' which became 'Two Jabs' when he punched a protester on the jaw at a public meeting, takes a stage further the impression conveyed by Blair's jetset holidays with Sir Cliff Richards in the Caribbean when not staying at his favourite Italian aristocratic friend's.
After a succession of triumphs, Blair's Britain seems to have fallen into a permanent silly season. Unable to fight a quietly mustering Conservative opposition, Labour politicians have fallen back on fighting among themselves. Meanwhile, newspapers are taking time off from their usual pastime of self-praise combined with criticism of rival publications to get their teeth into the melting clouds of Prescott candy floss that pass for an issue.
It's all reminiscent of the intrigues that festered in Indira Gandhi's durbar where no one else mattered. Her courtiers could not do anything save whisper, mutter and plot against one another. Sometimes, the leader, too, joined in their games to divide the ranks, exploit ambitions and gain her own ends. Leaks that could only have come from Number 10 sound familiar.
Byzantine reasons are advanced for Prescott's charmed political life. He lost his ministerial functions in Blair's May 5 reshuffle but retained his '133,997 salary, Jaguar car, two official residences ' Dorneywood and a flat in London's Admiralty Arch ' and the prospect of a '1.5 million pension. The day Des Wilson, the defence secretary, said he has a 'very important job', Prescott visited the Indonesian embassy to sign the earthquake condolence book on the government's behalf. Otherwise, he heads nine minor cabinet committees.
But everyone ' Blair, Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer and Blair's putative successor, and even the Conservatives ' wants him to remain. Blair fears that if Prescott quits, he might have to follow. The election of a new deputy prime minister could trigger demands for the election of a new party leader. Even if it doesn't, Blair might not survive the upheaval. If Prescott goes, Blair would be vulnerable to Old Labour which is the last thing the Conservatives want. They would much rather battle Blair's dying regime than a revitalized one under Brown who would prefer to inherit a discredited and ineffective deputy rather than a strong and effective one. A new man in the post now would expect to continue when (if) Brown, who probably has his own nominee, takes over. Neither the prime minister nor the prime minister in waiting wants a deputy who might throw his hat in the prime ministerial ring.
So, a chain of high profile appointments is being lined up to show the public that Prescott does have a role. Meanwhile, the great guessing game is who Blair will bestow Dorneywood on.