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Brown, “Bigotgate” and the Prescott punch

Let's get some perspective, please.

Can we all just calm down? Or perhaps that's not possible in this 24/7 news/comment/blog/tweet age in which we all now live. Hyperbole rules. Frenzy is the norm. Memories are short.

Brown's gaffe -- or "Bigotgate", as it has already become known -- is not the end of the world, despite what his opponents might have us believe. The Telegraph's Benedict Brogan says this "might finish off Mr Brown altogether". ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie says it is "devastating for Brown".

Really? You mean the financial crisis, the recession, the expenses scandal, the European election results, the Purnell resignation, the letter to Jacqui Janes, three failed coup attempts and "bullygate" weren't enough? As I point out in my column in tomorrow's magazine, Brown -- to the fury of his disbelieving critics -- is the great survivor. It is amazing that he, and the Labour Party, are still standing in this election -- and perhaps on the verge of becoming the largest single party in a hung parliament. Who'd have thought it, eh?

Will Bigotgate set him back, especially with the third and final leaders' debate tomorrow, in which the PM will have wanted to focus on the economy? Maybe. But it is high time we recognised that "public opinion" is not the same as "pundit opinion". "Bullygate" in particular showed that voters didn't seem to react as Andrew Rawnsley, and his supporters in the Tory press, assumed they would.

Then there is the Prescott punch in the 2001 election campaign to consider. Did that wreck his careeer? Nope. As the Guardian's Andrew Sparrow notes:

These incidents are often not as damaging as they look. John Prescott was worried that his career was over after he punched a voter in 2001. But now he seems to regard that as something to be proud of. He referred to it in the title of his autobiography, and jokes about it frequently.

Journalists have short memories. Today, they laugh about Prezza and his punch; back then they were baying for his blood, with newspapers extolling his egg-throwing opponent as a "mild-mannered giant". The Indie's Colin Brown, in his biography of Prescott, reminds us of the hysteria -- both inside the Labour Party and in the media:

There was mayhem in the open-plan war room, as staff ran from one television to another, and tuned into the BBC, Sky and the 24-hour news programmes to try to catch the first pictures of the incident. Austin told an official to start videoing the news.

Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News, who was broadcasting live about the incident from their Millbank studio, received a call from an official in Labour's Millbank HQ half a mile away. "A press officer at Millbank said I would be sued for libel," he told me. "They would have denied it, if we didn't have the evidence." That threat died as Sky News began broadcasting film of the incident. Boulton, who was acting as the anchorman in London for the election, told viewers it was so serious that Prescott could be forced to resign.

But Brown's camp stood by Prescott, and were determined to get ahead of the news by issuing a statement claiming it was self-defence. Lance Price, a former BBC political correspondent in charge of the party's media strategy, refused to put out any statement before they had seen the pictures with their own eyes.

But the party's pollster Philip Gould was convinced that the public would never stand for a deputy PM who went round hitting people and said that Labour's poll rating would be floored by Prescott's punch.

Meanwhile, a shaken and downcast Prescott telephoned Alastair Campbell on his mobile. Campbell took the call as Blair was about to record an ITV election programme, Ask Tony Blair.

"It's John," said the gruff familiar voice on the end of the line.

Campbell, who put the story in his one-man show when he left Downing Street, recalled there was an ominous silence. With the DPM that always meant there was a problem.

"I've hit someone," said Prescott.

"What?" asked Campbell, who could not believe his ears.

Campbell was incredulous as Prescott told him what had happened. Campbell decided not to tell the Prime Minister until his show was over. Prescott's friends say Campbell told Prescott he thought he would have to apologise.

Prescott snapped back: "You didn't apologise when you hit that lad on The Guardian." He was referring to the incident when Campbell, then political editor of the Daily Mirror, had punched Michael White, the political editor of The Guardian, in the Daily Mirror office at the Commons when the Mirror's ogreish owner, Robert Maxwell, had been found dead at sea. White bad popped his head round the Mirror's door and playfully suggested the paper's headline should be "Bob, Bob, Bobbing Along". Campbell, harassed, did not see the funny side.

As Blair, Campbell and Blair's gatekeeper, Anji Hunter, drove back from the studio, the grim view on board was that Prescott was in serious trouble. Blair asked Hunter what she thought. She had no hesitation in telling the PM it was terrible. "Middle-class England will not understand it," she said.

Campbell had a lot of time for Prescott, and had helped defend him when the press had been intruding into his private life over his wife Pauline's love child. But landing a punch in a general election campaign was, Campbell thought, beyond the limit.

The consensus in the Blair camp was that at least Prescott should apologise and some thought he should resign to try to limit the damage to the campaign, which was partly based on a promise to deal with yobbish behaviour. Brown was more cautious, and delayed forming an opinion until they could get a clearer view of what exactly had happened. While the debate went on at Millbank over what they should do, Prescott's career hung in the balance.