Spencer Murphy for New Statesman
It is tempting to see John Prescott simply as a working-class, Old Labour bruiser. He is, after all, the man who threw a left hook at a fuel protester after being egged while campaigning during the 2001 general election. However, the truth about him is more complex.
Talking to the New Statesman for two hours in his Commons office as he prepares to travel to Copenhagen to take part in the UN summit on climate change, Prescott adopts the persona of the passionate class warrior. He sits, surrounded by model trains and copies of his book Prezza, with one leg hanging over the side of his chair, spitting tirades about climate-change deniers, bankers and the Murdochs. But about the "class war" that Labour is supposed to be launching on David Cameron's Tories, he is more cautious. "We've got to be very careful on how we present this. I had this business about, can I be middle class or working class? Look, I am working class in my values, my experience, my background, but I live middle class."
Here lies the paradox of Prescott. Since stepping down at the same time as Tony Blair, in 2007, he has made acclaimed documentaries about class, yet he is, contrary to conventional wisdom, neither working class nor Old Labour. The former deputy prime minister lives in a large, turreted house in his Hull constituency and for years was nicknamed Two Jags because of his choice of transport in office. In postwar Britain, his parents viewed themselves not as "working class", but as "typical": the Prescotts were runners-up in a 1951 competition to find "the most typical family in Britain".
His upbringing formed his politics, and the moment Prescott failed his eleven-plus exams fuelled his fervent opposition to selection in schools and led to a pervasive insecurity about his education. In a rare but genuine moment of self-awareness, he once said: "I'm not thick-skinned. If anything, I'm too sensitive."
But Prescott's sensitivity is not obviously on display today as he attacks his enemies. At first, he spares Cameron. "The man is basically a nice guy," he says. He describes how the future Tory leader once even privately congratulated him after he "duffed up" William Hague ("the Yorkie") at the despatch box, saying: "That was good, John." But then comes the dig: "Is he the acceptable face of Toryism?"
With inheritance tax - and, as a result, the question of class - becoming a central issue in Labour's campaign for a fourth term, Prescott is unashamedly against those in New Labour who worry about drawing sharp "dividing lines" between the two main parties.
“Gordon's like me - he's a Labour politician born and bred," Prescott says. "With Gordon, the politics is much more serious: for him it is a division between Tory and Labour. With Tony, it would be a division between two personalities in politics . . . He's a foil man. Gordon's an axeman." Prescott pauses. "I'm an axeman," he says, grinning.
Although he reveals that he once accused Blair of being "a bloody Tory", Prescott remains loyal to both Blair and Brown. Yet on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he says: "I do wonder, looking back now, having the privilege of discussing with Tony about all this - how did I then go along [with it]?"
Prescott makes his most outspoken comments yet about Iraq: "Listen, Bush is crap; you know it, I know it, the party knows it." He also recalls the conversations he observed between the then US president and Blair: "I did listen to some of the video links between Tony and Bush . . . and I mean, they can be hair-raising, because Bush has got his own kind of approach . . . It did make you think."
He went to see the then US vice-president, Dick Cheney, with Christopher Meyer, who at that time was Britain's ambassador to Washington ("bloody red socks, that idiot"), and was alarmed at the US administration's approach. He has since imagined how Blair might have stood up to Bush, musing: "I've often thought, 'Well, you could have just said: Sod you . . . we're not doing it.'"
He acknowledges that the Chilcot inquiry is essential, but suspects it still will not be enough for those who want to see Blair punished. Even though Prescott will not be called to give evidence, the inquiry is forcing him to reflect on his and his colleagues' roles in the run-up to the war. He is clear about the suggestion that the then attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, was bullied by Blair into giving his approval of the war: "If you say, 'Was Goldsmith a happy man about this?' - no, he wasn't." He clarifies his position, arguing: "That's quite different from saying, 'No, I'm sorry, my view is that it's illegal, I'm not supporting it.'"
Prescott is accused by some on the left of "selling out" to power and the New Labour leadership. After becoming transport secretary in Blair's first government, this former docker went on to serve as a linchpin between Blair and Brown during New Labour's most turbulent times in office. In November 2003, Prescott hosted a shepherd's pie supper at his Admiralty House base in Whitehall. It was there, according to Brownites, that Blair appeased his restless chancellor by promising to quit before the following election (held in 2005). Prescott confirms a story in his biography that, after Brown asked for a higher chair, Blair quipped: "Gordon has always looked down on me."
Prescott now confides that he would have preferred Brown to win the party leadership in 1994. He describes how relations between Blair and Brown became so bad that, at one point, he reminded Blair that he could sack Brown as chancellor. "I got fed up with the two of them moaning at me . . . I did say to Tony, 'Look, you're the prime minister. You're complaining you're not getting all the information you want, then bloody sack him, but don't keep moaning about it.'"
Equally sick of the chancellor's complaints, he gave similar advice to Brown. "Gordon would say, 'I can't trust [Blair]' . . . So I said, 'Well, for Christ's sake, go then . . . I don't want to hear impossible moans, because all you're trying to do is persuade me to go one way or another.'"
Prescott, for all his bombast, is nuanced in his observations of the two men. The many hours he spent appeasing and negotiating, as a sort of nanny figure between them, gave him unmatched access to their inner lives and politics. Blair, he says, "could dance on the head of a pin and smile while he's doing it".
More seriously, he says: "Tony is a Christian social democrat. He wasn't a socialist. And he had a strategy which nearly came off, in my view . . . to change British politics, to get the coalition - that is, to bring all moderate people together of good consensus [sic] in one party and destroy the Tories."
On one occasion, Blair had asked Prescott whether Paddy Ashdown could join the Labour Party. "I said, 'If he walks in that door, I'm out that door. No discussion.'" The prime minister set up a meeting between Ashdown and Prescott, but it was in vain. "[Ashdown] said, 'I believe you don't want me to come in.' And I said, 'You're right there, mate.' He said, 'Well, why?' I said, 'You're a fucking Liberal. We've got a majority of 160 - what do we want you for?'" Indeed, Prescott's ruthless tribalism is an important reason the Liberal and Labour movements were never reunited under Blair.
Despite his lingering allegiance to Blair, Prescott confirms that he threatened to resign at one low point in their relations. He told the prime minister: "I could go . . . or you could get rid of me . . . but I'd still be deputy leader." What should be remembered about Prescott's power is that, as deputy leader of the party, he was the only other elected member of the leadership. "I always knew they couldn't get rid of me . . . I had extraordinary influence. It was an influence to operate responsibly."
Much of this influence was on the political direction of the party. He was unimpressed, for instance, by Blair's "New" Labour rebranding exercise. "I said, 'What a load of crap . . . What the bloody hell are you on about?'" Eventually, he was persuaded "because people have to know that you've changed". But he says of the term: "I've never used it . . . It's Labour, for Christ's sake."
Prescott remains loyal to the Prime Minister. Asked about Brown's ruthlessness, he is defensive. "Gordon is transparent - when he's annoyed, he's annoyed. When he's fair, he's fair. And he can find brilliant ways of doing things."
He concedes that Brown's political machine might have been his undoing at times. "He did have people around him - operators - who I thought weren't the best for political judgement, quite frankly." But, looking back to the moment the leadership of the party was decided in 1994, he says: "I personally would have supported Gordon. And then Tony would [have] become the obvious successor . . . Gordon was more politically in tune with me."
Nowadays, Prescott's energies are concentrated on helping the party in its faltering attempt to win a fourth term in government. He believes that Labour is free to be itself after losing the counterproductive support of the Sun. Asked if Blair and Brown went too far in courting Rupert Murdoch and that "bloody Rebekah Wade woman", Prescott says: "I have no doubt about that . . . I used to say to both Gordon and Tony, 'For Christ's sake, the Murdochs are only exploiting us. We shouldn't be involved with them.' Making a pact with the Sun is not my style." As for James Murdoch: "He's worse than the father. He just wants everything controlled by the Sun." Prescott has been touchy about the tabloids since they hounded him and exposed his personal life, raking over his affair with his diary secretary Tracey Temple and a story about how his wife, Pauline, had a child by an American GI when she was 16. "I haven't said this till now, but I am supportive very much of the arguments of [Max] Mosley," he says, referring to the privacy action the former Formula One boss won against the News of the World.
In retirement, Prescott has reinvented himself as an unlikely star of the blogosphere and Twitter, popularising campaigns against bankers' bonuses and on climate change. Liberated from high office, he talks of bankers in a way that no cabinet minister could. "Who the fuck put us in this position? The same smart men, now saying they're going to get our money back . . . But in the meantime, the money for these mercenaries - because that's what [they are] - is billions. Financial bloody mercenaries."
He is also promoting the New Earth Deal for the Council of Europe (for which he is the rapporteur on climate change). The deal pushes for a fairer pact between developed and developing countries at Copenhagen. He is optimistic about a serious, progressive deal this month, though he has "always" thought it would only be a political agreement. "It's not possible, it never ever was possible, to get a legal agreement." Prescott, who helped broker the protocol at the 1997 summit in Kyoto, Japan, says that was "decided at the last minute". This time round, he has been a de facto UK climate change envoy, shuttling between the US and China to ensure that the leaders would attend and bring targets to the table. He credits Brown with bringing the summit together: "Gordon - just as he did with the G20 in co-ordinating the worldwide response to the global economic meltdown - is leading the way."
He is dismissive of the increasingly fashionable climate-change-denying cabal in the Tory party that includes David Davis and the former chancellor Nigel Lawson. "[They] say we must have more transparency and an open debate. What? Two weeks before we're going to decide this bloody thing? . . . Well, it's a bloody big challenge you're making to the science - on what grounds? On what grounds?"
In Copenhagen, he will be doing all he can to encourage a deal. It is this role as a wily negotiator, whether on global climate deals or as a middleman between Blair and Brown, that perhaps most aptly defines the lesser-known Prescott. On the job of middleman, he says, ensuring a "smooth transition" between the two men was never easy, but: "I've got great respect for both . . . Those two were greats." And he is ready to go into battle across the six months ahead. Labour, he insists, "can win if it fights. But it really has to up the game now."