A huff, a puff and Prescott backs down

Watching John Prescott being torn apart by the media brings to mind one of Tony Benn's homilies from the early 1980s. "Politics is about issues, not personalities," Benn observed as he mesmerised with his own unique political personality.

Still, as with many of Benn's comments, the chutzpah concealed more than a grain of truth. Labour's own experience out of power is proof of that. Benn's "personality" did not bring about the divisions over policies in the early 1980s, any more than Kenneth Clarke or Michael Portillo were responsible for the collapse of the last Conservative government. The Tories were split over the issue of Europe, and there was nothing much any personality could do about it.

On the whole, the personalities of the last government rather liked each other. Most of them, it seemed, had been friends since university and would still occasionally have a drink, in spite of the fierce ideological divide. In the current government, there are virtually no policy divisions, but its leading members despise each other. Much of the policy is sorted out in Downing Street and the Treasury, with David Blunkett and Jack Straw getting a look in every now and again. The others just seem pleased to be there after being out of power for so long. That they do not like each other does not seem to matter: the government is still way ahead in the polls. Clashes over policy harm governments; personality clashes make headlines, but do not have such serious consequences.

Taking Benn as an erratic, but perceptive guide, I don't believe Prescott's personality has anything to do with the transport crisis. If anything, Prescott's personal contribution has been as much positive as negative. But the positive and negative have cancelled each other out and left us pretty much where we were before, which was stranded at a run-down railway station or waiting at a bus stop.

To take the positive side of Prescott first. More than any other shadow cabinet member apart from Gordon Brown, he gave much thought to policy in opposition. Indeed in a wide-ranging interview to be published in next week's New Statesman millennium edition, Neil Kinnock, who had a turbulent relationship with Prescott (to put it politely), generously praises the Deputy PM for his attention to detail during that period.

Prescott arrived in his job knowing much more about the scale of the crisis and the potential remedies than other ministers entering the Whitehall minefield for the first time.

But Prescott is not as assertive as he seems. This is his negative side, and it cancels out his ministerial expertise. Prescott huffs and puffs, but does not blow the house down.

Being huffed and puffed at by Prescott can be an intimidating experience. I write as someone who has been at the end of his huffing and puffing. I needed to lie down immediately afterwards.

But Prescott himself is in awe of the Blairite entourage and, to some extent, the Treasury battalions as well. He left school at 16, while the Blairites seemed to have spent most of their pre-Downing Street years at Oxford and Harvard. When he was, in effect, told after the election that transport was not an immediate priority, he should have hit the roof, played the nuclear card and threatened to resign. Instead, awed by his colleagues, he accepted their verdict without a fuss.

This is not to suggest that Prescott has never flexed his muscles. His close allies tell me that over the Fairness at Work report, Prescott was an important figure in toughening up the proposals for employees' rights.

Curiously, Frank Dobson tells me he waded in on this one as well. "Don't tell me I'm a Blair puppet. I gave them a hard time over Fairness at Work," he said to me recently. The former trade and industry minister, Ian McCartney, has also proclaimed his negotiating skills in ensuring that Fairness at Work meant what its title implied.

Goodness knows what Downing Street originally had in mind for that modest white paper, given all this uncharacteristic ministerial resistance. It probably envisaged a lot of razzmatazz concealing little substance, which was certainly the case for the transport white paper.

What has happened with the issue of transport follows a similar pattern to the exposure of a corrupt tyranny. At first, "ordinary people" talk about how awful the situation is and wonder how the administration gets away with it. Slowly, the appalling nature of the crisis is exposed by a valiant media.

Now, every day, news stories and columns are filled with the latest transport disasters. Even the ITN's noble political editor, Michael Brunson, has taken to print, writing in the London Evening Standard about his appalling experience when he left his car behind and went to work by train. On the same day, the Independent published a letter from the libel lawyer, Sir Peter Carter Ruck, chronicling a terrible journey on a privatised train and calling for the renationalisation of the railways.

As the BBC revealed in its recent excellent series of programmes on the railways, the investment required for the railways amounts to at least £40 billion. This is not Prescott's fault. The railways have suffered from decades of neglect. The only question now is: "Who pays?" It cannot be the fare-paying passengers alone, or fares will soar well above their already excessive levels. But if it is the taxpayers, the question of ownership and the balance between the public and private sectors requires urgent attention.

This is the unavoidable "issue" that would face any "personality" taking on the transport brief. Until the next election, I predict that the personality dealing with it will continue to be Prescott.