John Prescott: An Upstanding Member of UK PLC
28 April 2006
'Every time Prescott opens his mouth, it's like someone has flipped open his head and stuck in an egg whisk.'
- Simon Hoggart
When most of us accept a job, we usually sign a contract that says something like: 'I hereby agree to the stated terms and conditions of employment...', including any confidentiality agreement, internet policy, dress code, and so on. We suspect the same applies when you become a cabinet minister, except the declaration concludes '...and I agree to fuck up so spectacularly it'll make Gallipoli look like an unqualified success.' If this is the case, then John Prescott has certainly kept to his side of the agreement.
In recent years, Prescott hasn't so much had a political career as a series of ignominious PR disasters. Supposedly a heavyweight politician in the Ken Clarke mould, Prescott rapidly became a figure of fun for his mangled, off-the-cuff pronouncements. He got soaked by anarcho-twats Chumbawamba while ligging at the Brit Awards. He got into an unseemly, scrappy scuffle after having an egg thrown at him. He publicly slagged off his colleague Peter Mandelson, in one of many toe-curlingly unfunny 'jokes' that tended to backfire on him.
Thus Prescott was a bit of an embarrassment, but such incidents were essentially trivial. Not so with some of the other questions raised about 'Two Shags', such as the role of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which has a bizarrely wide-ranging portfolio and has been criticised for being incompetently- managed. And like most New Labour types, Prescott does things that don't sit happily with any sort of traditional Labour Party ethos, running the famous two Jags and owning four houses at a time when many people can't afford even a modest home.
Still, once you've started digging a hole for yourself, you may as well finish it. This week Prescott revealed he'd been having an affair with one of his secretaries, Tracey Temple, and in true New Labour fashion, the revelation was timed to be buried under the bad news facing Charles Clarke.
'Buried' is a rather appropriate term when it comes to John Prescott and sex. Imagine being trapped underneath Prescott while he humps away like a beached whale in the last convulsions of death. Suddenly Boris Johnson in his cycling helmet becomes an Adonis-like vision of male beauty. (And lest we forget, it was Prescott who once jokingly suggested that Marlon Brando could play him in a film of his life. Maybe Prezza wasn't alluding to 'On the Waterfront', but 'Last Tango in Paris'. With beef dripping instead of butter.)
It's easy to make cheap jibes about Prescott, because he's, well, a bit cheap. But, in 2006, is there anything really so terrible about Prescott having an affair, particularly if it doesn't affect his ability to do his job?
The answer, unfortunately, is 'yes'. Although in these liberal times, politicians having an extra-marital affair (in the singular) is often viewed quite charitably, they tend to turn out badly. In the end, either the long-suffering wife gets ditched, or the Other Woman turns out, in the final analysis, to have been a dispensable bit of fluff. It would be a rather ugly situation for ordinary people, but if you're a politician and in the media spotlight it's going to be much, much worse for everyone concerned. The public doesn't expect politicians to be free of human foibles, it's just that we expect them to be a bit more sensible than, say, Jude Law.
And although they're different things, Prescott's affair was revealed in the same week that Charles Clarke was called on to resign over the staggering number of criminals who should have been deported but weren't, and shortly after the news that Cherie Blair had managed to spend £8,000 on haircuts. The cumulative effect of these constant New Labour shenanigans is to give the impression of a government that likes being in power and all the trappings that come with it, but not the tiresome business of running the country competently.
A significant proportion of past or present cabinet ministers have some sort of misdeed attached to them. Take your pick:
Blair and his freebies; Blunkett and the Kimberly Quinn affair; Mandelson and the mortgage application and Hinduja brothers affair; Jowell and the Berlusconi cash; Hoon and burying bad news; Hewitt and the GP pay fuck-up plus other NHS mismanagement. There are other, lesser misjudgements almost too numerous to mention: Lord Derry and his wallpaper; Lord Levy and tax; the mysterious case of Alan Milburn spontaneously deciding to spend more time with his family. Even relative newcomer Ruth Kelly was quickly in trouble over the paedos-in-schools cock-up. Worse still, she's a member of creepy Opus Dei...
As scandals go, none of the above are as nakedly salacious as the Profumo affair or Jeremy Thorpe being charged with murder. But it's the sheer number that's amazing. If the cabinet *was* a normal office, of, say, 20 people, ten of them would be having extramarital affairs, five would be fiddling their expenses, two of them wouldn't have a fucking clue how to do their job, two would be congenital liars and one of them would be a Scientologist. Maybe this is what's meant by UK plc.