Paranoid Prescott


Ian Newton with Nathan Williams <em>Vision Paperbacks, 186pp, £9.99</em>

A couple of years ago, before John Prescott was a missed heartbeat away from 10 Downing Street, he rang me up one Sunday lunchtime. Prescott must have had that growly look he wears when William Hague makes one of those telling jibes at his expense during Prime Minister's Question Time, since he was incandescent with rage, even if he was working hard to suppress it.

I was the Independent's Westminster correspondent at the time, and he had heard that I was doing a story on some allegations of shenanigans by the local council in Hull, his constituency town, and he wanted to know why. I had reached Hull, via Doncaster, where I had exposed the junketing and freeloading of a number of councillors which so far has landed four of them in jail and another 17 facing charges. I had then investigated an odd housing deal between a developer, Keepmoat, and Doncaster council, which gave the company first call on all council-owned housing land that became available. And, according to several anonymous letters sent to me after the story was published, Hull council had signed a similar deal with Keepmoat, which had rewarded some councillors with days at Doncaster races and the like.

I gave Prescott the gist of the story. His response was that if there was wrongdoing in Hull, the Labour Party should deal with it. Full stop. So why was I, who was supposed to be sympathetic to Labour, trying to embarrass the party?

Prescott is a man easily rattled, as Hague knows, and it is fitting that the Prescott scowl features on the front page of this book, an amusing account of how a bunch of scallywags, mostly factory workers on nights, set out to destroy his career. It is The Full Monty of investigative journalism: a bunch of working-class men embarking on a journalistic expose. They started with the discovery that World in Action was digging in the town, and went on to do much sniffing around of their own.

Hull is one of those strange towns which is not on the way to anywhere and as a result tends to be shielded from scrutiny. There was a bad smell about the place, not just caused by redundant trawlers. A previous MP, Stuart Randall, resigned just weeks before the 1997 general election, knowing a House of Lords seat was being kept warm for him. He had fallen out with the local party over his attempts to expose corruption in the council, and had been happy to brief journalists about the allegations, but lacked the will - or perhaps the information - to see an investigation through, and so merely attracted the wrath of John Prescott. Eventually, Tony Blair was happy to buy Randall off with a peerage, allowing in a loyal trade unionist.

So Hull was certainly worth investigating. The "Dustbingate" scallywags (so called because someone seems to have stolen Prescott's dustbin during the affair) set about using their considerable local contacts to unearth a story that they hoped would ruin Prescott. They did not succeed, but they at least came across a reasonably good tale of their own, which they touted around the media, both local and national. John Prescott's son, John junior (a tell-tale sign of arrogance to call your children by your own name), had been involved in a property company, buying repossessions from those unable to pay their mortgage. The company progressed to buy 25 derelict houses cheaply from the local Housing Action Trust, which was refurbishing some estates with more than £100 million of government money.

But there was nothing to suggest John Prescott had done anything wrong and the story petered out, after a brief media frenzy which peaked when Julia Somerville, on the lunchtime ITN news, turned to Michael Brunson on College Green and said: "Is the government in crisis?"

Ian Newton began the investigation because "like the rest of us, I wanted to live a different life". And, like The Full Monty strippers, it was a largely hopeless exercise by a bunch of losers who briefly tasted success. Then the media turned on them, and Newton almost lost his job.

They did, however, chalk up one notable scalp. John Black - the council's housing chairman, who was also deputy chairman of the Housing Action Trust - resigned and has disappeared from public life. Black was Prescott's friend, and the photograph of the pair together at a council function was constantly reproduced during the affair.

Dustbingate! is racy and witty, but the levity masks a serious point about Labour's failure to grapple with the corruption in local government that is an inevitable result of a generation of hegemony. The problem is that old Labour always tried to shy away from scrutiny, conceiving the press as an enemy of the working class, while new Labour is so obsessed with control that it, too, opts for secrecy and backroom deals, not openness. It is precisely because I am a friend of Labour that I have tried to expose local corruption - the party's fatal weakness. John Prescott's instinctive paranoia demonstrates that, subconsciously at least, he may agree.

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