In this hot, remorseless August, amid the astonishing spectacle of Lord Hutton's inquiry burrowing into the entrails of the very recent political past like paparazzi going through so much celebrity garbage, only one politician has so far emerged with any credit. John Leslie Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, entitled since May to draw a state pension, has acquired an unfamiliar lustre as a politician with human values. In a world of hard-faced men and women who have done well out of new Labour, this humanity may be the quality that rescues the fortunes of the left.
Everyone knows Prezzer. He's the jester at the court of King Tony, the licensed fool who's so peripheral to the serious business of government that he can, with impunity, punch a voter or wave two fingers at the media. Despite his two Jags, he is, spiritually, new Labour's white van man. "John is John," said the PM, after the "two jabs" incident during the last election, "and I'm lucky to have him as my deputy."
Each August for the past six years, as the bosses headed for the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, Prezzer got his break. He was in charge as acting prime minister. Everyone knew that really he was the nightwatchman, the caretaker whose judgements could, if necessary, be overruled. He was a senior politician not senior enough - in that litmus test beloved of the Daily Mail - to launch a nuclear missile.
This August, he has played a different role. After five summers memorable for one good joke (that one about the crab called Peter), he finally got the chance to play to his strength: his credibility. When he apologised for the behind-the-hand Walter Mitty smear on Dr David Kelly, delivered in a conversation between the PM's official spokesman and a lobby correspondent from the Independent, the nation knew he meant it. When, two days later, he went to Kelly's funeral - at the request of the dead man's family, the sole government representative - his sympathetic presence symbolised the national disquiet about the treatment meted out by politicians to a public servant. It is hard to imagine any other leading cabinet minister having quite the same effect.
Prescott, MP for Hull East for 33 years, is said to regard himself as Blair's Bevin, the authentic voice of the worker in the ear of the professional, middle-class Prime Minister. And no doubt No 10 is content to allow the party's core support to have the impression that there is someone at the heart of government with whom they might share a pint, or at least an interest in cars. But more probably, he fulfils the role Attlee did for Churchill: charged with the duller business on the home front, he keeps the natives quiet and himself safely out of the way of the titans strutting the world stage.
Prescott, despite being directly elected deputy leader by the party, has appeared to be Deputy Prime Minister (a prime ministerial appointment) solely on sufferance, the party's comfort blanket, dismissed by the Whitehall gossips as a failure as a departmental minister, always on the transfer list. But Prescott is too canny a politician not to understand his power base. The former union activist once attacked by Harold Wilson as one of the "tightly knit group of politically motivated men" behind the seamen's strike of 1966 is happy to acknowledge that his position rests on his ability to deliver old Labour activists to the new Labour project.
He earned his colours with new Labour when he defended the party reforms of the early 1990s, notably in a passionate, if incomprehensible, appeal for support for John Smith's one member, one vote campaign. His quarrels with new Labour have always been ones of presentation, not policy. He has even broken with his old union, now part of the RMT, over its threat to cut party funding.
Through sheer determination and self-discipline, he emerged from every reshuffle bruised but defiant. This year, he has finally created a kind of success out of his very weaknesses. His verbal dyslexia, his irascibility and his long record of PR disasters have allowed him to step out from under the poisonous upas-tree of No 10 because he is so palpably not one of the in-crowd.
Blair let it be known that defeat in the final Iraq debate would have precipitated his resignation. It is one of his distinguishing features as Prime Minister that he never takes his hold on power for granted. Regardless of his epic election victories, he and the people around him behave as if he governs by a perilous majority. It is not, therefore, unreasonable to imagine that he and Cherie, under the balmy Bajan sky, have been considering the same issue should the Hutton inquiry go badly.
If the disaster for which Downing Street has been on the alert for so many years finally happened, there might yet be - if only for a brief interregnum to allow for constitutional formalities - a Prime Minister Prescott.
John Kampfner is away