The deputy prime minister, John Prescott, has lived a charmed life for the years of this Labour government. Tony Blair has kept him close as the emblem of Old Labour; the embodiment of the union-supported, working-class, party for the underprivileged and those with a pricking conscience about the hidden poverty of the masses. The face of poverty in this country has changed as has the face of the Labour party. The greatest levels of poverty and old-fashioned hard work today most often exist among immigrant populations. Asian incomers, of course, feature noticeably at the other end of the scale as they top the rich lists in this country and provide powerful role models for others through their successes.
Since the early days of New Labour in the mid-Nineties, Tony Blair and his party have gone out of their way to woo new wealth and top business, while attempting to hold their traditional constituency. John Prescott ' former merchant seaman, shop steward and undereducated rough diamond ' has been the talisman of tradition in Blair's pocket and no one could suggest that he has been other than loyal, although the prime minister must, on occasion, have found him a heavy weight to carry. With scandal and scandal-mongering increasingly besmirching the name and regrettably toad-like figure of honest John, the people's champion, Blair needs to throw him out sharpish or he will break the final thread on the Sword of Damocles hanging over the prime minister.
Prescott has described himself as 'a bit of a loose cannon' and this has become an increasingly true description in recent weeks. The role of deputy prime minister appears to confer certain privileges without any specific powers, and Prescott has embraced all the perks with unbecoming glee. He became known as 'two Jags' early in the Labour government when it was revealed that he was the owner of not one but two flashy ministerial cars. Recently, as the clouds of sleaze gather over his head, he has been shedding grace and favour, houses and the outward trappings of high-living with considerable reluctance under pressure from both the opposition and his own party. This week there has been an ongoing pushing and pulling as labour back-benchers are torn between a high moral stand and loyalty to their own.
Prescott has skated over thin ice for a long time, publicly and personally, with a poor record of achievements as head of the department of transport, environment and the regions, a job created for him to run concurrently with his role as deputy prime minister. His plans for housing, in particular, showed a poor understanding of issues and a disregard for communities that did not accord well with his Old Labour credentials. He has only once, in the past, publicly disapproved of Blair's policy and created questions over their mutual support system. That was over new schools policy that he believed would discriminate against the working class. It appears that while he may be the representative of that class, modern middle-class Labour MPs would prefer class to be an issue which remained in the cupboard with the other Old Labour skeletons.
Prescott has been fined for speeding in one or other jaguar car on a number of occasions, had a jug of water poured over him at a pop music awards ceremony by a disgusted band member, had a fistfight with an egg throwing protester during the 2001 election campaign, repeatedly made nonsense of the English language throughout his speaking career, and got away with most of it most of the time. Finally with revelations of an affair with his diary secretary, refusals to deny rumours of further affairs and the most recent and damning questions over his relationship with Philip Anschutz, the American billionaire casino-owner and potential developer of what must be the biggest white elephant in the world, the Millennium Dome as a super-casino.
The parliamentary standards commissioner, Sir Philip Mawer, has decided to conduct a full inquiry into whether Prescott should have visited Anschutz at his American ranch, a visit that should have been and was not declared under the ministerial code of conduct. The question is whether or how much Prescott's relationship has eased the way towards a super casino licence for the Millennium Dome site. Prescott's not unreasonable answer to this is that regeneration of the site and surrounding area can only be a good thing, but in this country we have never had a super casino, in fact casinos have been rather small and low-profile as a rule, and for most people there are questions over the desirability of the undertaking even in an area of relative underdevelopment. That apart, on his recent record, anything touched by the deputy prime minister has become tainted and the high moral tone he has taken in the past over allegations and revelations of sleaze in other parties makes his current image and activities even less attractive.
Anshutz himself is now backstepping rapidly and who can blame him' To throw money at a previously dead end site, whatever the lure of huge potential profit, may be too much of a gamble even for a casino supreme. Further revelations of hospitality, free VIP tickets to the British Grand Prix for Prescott, on top of the undeclared weekend at the ranch, begin to add up to a straightforward grooming exercise by a clever entrepreneur of a greedy and unsophisticated individual with dubious judgment and a mistaken conviction of his non-stick status and importance to his party's image. It is very hard to believe that Anschutz liked the deputy PM for himself and had no thought to the future as he provided all this hospitality.
Poor Pauline Prescott, who has seemed to enjoy the trappings of privilege every bit as much as her erring husband. In 1999, an official car was used to transport her and her husband 200 yards from a hotel to the Labour Party Conference Hall, where he made a speech on the need to use public transport for the sake of the environment. Giving the reasons for his own off-message travel, he stated with typical bluster, 'Because of the security reasons for one thing and second, my wife doesn't like to have her hair blown about. Have you got another silly question' Well Pauline still has the big hair, she, along with Mrs Blair, has been criticized for her hairdressing costs, but I imagine she has been sorely deflated by the disagreeable revelations and rumours of her husband's sexual sidelines and reputation as 'a serial groper' who 'just jumped on you when he felt like it' and left a twenty year long trail of lovers behind him. Really, I think a relatively discriminatory British public, if they have seen the man much on television, must find the idea positively repellent. Pauline hopefully is beating him with the frying pan in the best tradition of the strong working class woman.
It is possible that Prescott is as much of an embarrassment for the whole Labour government as for his prime minister; it is certainly hard to believe that too many members are queueing up to kiss him better. Nevertheless, the chickens are most likely to come home to Tony Blair's doorstep and become an additional rod for his back unless he can force the resignation of his deputy. Prescott has given up much already, and maybe he does not look forward to being at home with the wife, but his current and continually falling record may be the final straw not just for Blair but for Labour as well at the next general election.
After all, the governing party is faced by a fresh-faced family minded opposition leader who looks clean and decent and is so far untouched by any worthwhile smut. The press headlines at the moment are those that stick easily in the memory of a prurient population that delights in fallen celebrity even as the finer points of political understanding may be long forgotten when faced with making a cross on the voting slip.