The first proper meal I had with John Prescott was in the Lake District last summer. I’d met him several times by then, in his DPM’s office at the House of Commons and in his apartment at Admiralty House, but we’d only had coffee and biscuits. He and his wife, Pauline, had booked a week’s holiday at a place next to our home in Loweswater, which was good of them – it meant I could do a huge amount of work, ghosting his autobiography, without any travelling.
On the first evening, we had dinner at our local pub, the Kirkstile Inn. I ordered two glasses of beer from Roger mine host, showing off that I knew he made his own excellent brew. I drank mine. John didn’t. Not to his taste, perhaps. With the meal, Pauline and I got through a bottle between us, but John had none. Funny, that. Must not be feeling so well.
All week, we had lots of meals together, which he tucked into with relish, and any other con diments to hand, but he drank only water or Coke. It turns out he doesn’t drink. To my amazement. That was not the image I’d acquired from the media over the years. I’d always assumed he was a bit of a lager lout, that was the impression the tabloids always gave. And a freeloader, always on the make, with loads of property, and of course two Jags.
As the year progressed, almost all my preconceptions, picked up from the media, altered. But then they usually do. With this sort of work, living with your subject, being part of their extended family, you begin to see their point of view and realise how distorted the media image has become. And this is a situation they can do nothing about: trapped, having to read the same old stories and sneers, trotted out over and over again.
I started discussing the book back in February last year – in secret. Prescott didn’t want any paper, least of all the Daily Mail, knowing he was contemplating writing his memoirs, as he’d get hammered. I didn’t meet him for a long time, just his sons and the agent, Robert Kirby. They told me I’d been approached because of the Gazza book. This struck me as strange. Once I met him, I could see some resemblances – he does go off at tangents, into streams of consciousness, tells very funny stories, and his language is very football dressing room. But nothing could be signed, I was told, no work started, no deals struck, until he and Tony Blair had resigned. I worried that it might not happen. Blair could easily change his mind and hang on for another year, and so would John. I’d then have wasted months.
Once they packed it in, on 27 June, I wrote a brief synopsis of what would be in the book, then we started the process of presenting it to publishers – none of whom knew about the project till then. Headline was the chosen company. One of the things that clinched it was that they arrived at the meeting with the book’s cover already printed – properly printed, with the title, blurb, picture, biog. It showed how keen they were, going to all that trouble, just on the off-chance.
The press got the money wrong, but that’s normal. Publishers let it happen, as they like to appear big, macho spenders, thus encouraging agents to offer them their best projects.
John never for a moment appeared interested in the money – in fact all year, when the subject of his finances came up, such as asking him what he paid for his house in Hull, he didn’t seem to know. Yet he now needed to make some money, his sons, Johnathan and David, told me, for a deposit on somewhere to live in London. Once he’d resigned as deputy prime minister, he’d lost Dorneywood and Admiralty House.
Until he signed the deal for the book, so they told me, he’d never made a penny from any outside source since entering parliament in 1970. Many MPs, as we know, have directorships, consultancies, get paid for speaking engagements or continue to work as lawyers, journalists or Mayor of London. He had only ever owned one house, his home in Hull, despite what his media image might suggest. He missed out by renting a union flat in London for many years, then he had his grace-and-favour residences. If he’d bought his own London home back in 1970, he would have been sitting on a small fortune today.
The “Two Jags” gibe is fairly harmless. One, of course, was a government Jag, the same as Heseltine had before him. His own Jag has always been second-hand, bought very cheap. (I have one myself, 11 years old. Getting it serviced costs more than the car is worth.)
Obviously he did the book for money (only blockheads would do otherwise), just as I did, just as journalists do journalism, lawyers do law, but equally he did it to try to set the record straight. They all say that, of course, but his real record had hardly come out. I was not aware of all the many pamphlets he had produced, or the extent of his work on the Kyoto treaty, on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and in China. Keeping the peace between Blair and Gordon Brown for a decade, stopping them doing anything really stupid, will probably be seen as one of his best achievements, but I was equally interested in his early life, his ten years at sea as a steward, and then going to Ruskin College, Oxford, as a mature student.
While we were working on the book, the present principal of Ruskin wrote to say that they had come across his records from the 1960s – did he want them, or should they bin them? While at Ruskin, he’d thought he wasn’t doing well, feeling insecure and inferior, yet these private, internal notes show that he was rated by the staff, seen as bright and hard-working, if not exactly the most fluent beard on the campus.
He maintains he never intended to be a politician. I still find this just a bit hard to accept, though I believe he believes it. His only ambition, he says, was to be a union official, but the leader of the National Union of Seamen, Bill Hogarth, took against him. That’s why he was shunted off to Ruskin College in 1963, to get him out of the way, and then into politics, again to get shot of him.
One of his other theories is that he and Cherie Blair always got the worst hammerings from the tabloids – because they could. Tony had successfully courted the editors and proprietors, so they kept in with him, but they needed some Labour hate figures, so they picked on easy, obvious targets, such as Cherie and Prezza. He is short-tempered, a shouter and moaner. Everyone warned me of that, even his own family. I did overhear a few scenes, but fortunately he never picked on me. But it does blow over very quickly, he moves on, forgets.
He can also be very rude. We were walking through the House of Commons one day and came face to face with David Cameron and his wife. “Oh hello, John,” said Cameron, ever so friendly and affectionate, pausing as if expecting to introduce his wife. Ah, I was thinking, despite everything, these politicians are colleagues, in it together, same school, if different houses. John didn’t pause for one moment, offering only a grunt, then he walked on. Afterwards, he said he never speaks to “fucking Tories”, hates them all, always has done. He later took back the word hate. It was just how he’d been brought up. At sea, in the union, all owners, bosses, Tories, they were always seen as the enemy.
The bulimia story came out by chance – in the sense that I don’t think he had really intended to tell me about it. I had finished the bulk of the book: gone through every year, every big event, in order, got the scaffolding up. I then went to Hull to sort through his family albums and choose some good photographs for the book. Pauline made us a lovely lunch, which started with salmon and a hollandaise sauce. As we went through each course, John continued to up the hollandaise sauce, which was in a large sauce boat. When we’d finally finished, had pudding and coffee, he went back to the sauce – and scoffed the lot.
How disgusting, I said, how could you, what an insult to Pauline’s cooking. He just smiled, muttering something about doing worse things. He explained that when he likes something he doesn’t know when to stop. He can finish a whole packet of digestives or drink a tin of evaporated milk. Then it all came out about his bulimia, and the treatment.
When the Sunday Times ran the story – before it began serialising the book, fearing another paper would do a spoiler – several columnists said Prescott was just saying it for publicity, to boost sales. The book didn’t exist at the time, so no one could buy it. In any case, I don’t think people would rush to buy it for that reason. It would probably put them off, if anything.
When the manuscript was finished, and we had finished dealing with the lawyers and No 10, I warned him not to start showing it to other people. His wife and sons, that was OK, but not friends and colleagues. I’ve been through this enough times. There’s always some “good friend” who insists on their twopenn’orth, suggesting deletions or additions, out of jealousy or other motives.
I was furious when I discovered he’d let Alastair Campbell read it. He said he’d always valued his judgement. I said he’s a rival author, with more to come on Blair-Brown, ignore him. One of Campbell’s comments was that there was too much swearing. Pretty rich, coming from him. He pointed out stories which the press would use to beat Labour. I was worried John would be influenced, and start wanting re-writes, but luckily he wasn’t. He’d just wanted to hear Alastair’s opinion. He was doing a personal memoir, not a political treatise, which Alastair didn’t seem to appreciate. A lot of the bad language did in fact go, but mainly at Pauline’s request.
In the book, he does endlessly praise Brown and Blair, too much I think, but of course it’s the minor criticisms that have been picked up and exaggerated. Columnists, who read headlines only, don’t get out of the house, or their shed, copy each other and make sweeping generali sations. Matthew Norman, in the Independent, wrote that Prezza would “merrily knife [Labour’s] leader to justify the large advance”. It wasn’t large. He doesn’t knife anyone.
On the day the first part of the Sunday Times serial appeared, the main headline on Radio 4 news was that Prescott had “urged Blair to sack Gordon”. Boring, boring, I would have thought a year earlier. Instead, I was spitting. I had carefully written, in John’s words of course, that after months listening to Tony moaning on about Gordon and vice versa, and getting well fed up, he had suggested that if Tony felt that way, why didn’t he get rid of him? There was no “urging”. But the use of that verb gave it a totally different meaning. All day I went around saying, “Fucking media, even the BBC’s at it, bloody hell.” Forgetting, of course, that I’m media. Ah well, get involved on the inside, and you begin to see how they feel.
How Prezza feels is real and human. His
emotions and thoughts and opinions have not come from a think tank or focus group, which is what will shape all politicians in the future. They won’t have had real jobs or experiences, as he has had. It’s hard to see anyone from his background, or with his character, rising as high in politics ever again. So where will the awkward buggers come from?
“Prezza – My Story: Pulling No Punches” by John Prescott with Hunter Davies is published by Headline Review (£18.99)