Thursday, 17 May 2007

In Praise of Prescott - the left-hand man

One point that seems to have been missed in all the recent fuss over the departure of Tony Blair after having been UK prime minister for 10 years, is one record his Cabinet has established. This is that, certainly compared to the 20th century (and especially Margaret Thatcher who regularly 'shuffled' her Cabinet), and probably the 19th century as well, the top positions have changed the least. Gordon Brown has to be the first Chancellor of the Exchequer to have overseen 11 budgets in a row. John Prescott is certainly the longest serving Deputy Prime Minister ever, like Brown, having been in the same post since Labour won the election in 1997.

A lot is going to be said about Gordon Brown in the coming years, so in this post I am going to turn to John Prescott and assess his career. He will step down at the same time as Blair does. The Deputy Prime Minister, unlike say the US Vice-President, is not an official British ministerial position, it is one that comes in and out of use as is needed or wanted. Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party was deputy prime minister 1940-5 under Winston Churchill as prime minister. Churchill, the Conservative, was heading a coalition government and so it was a reward to Attlee for his participation. Whilst Churchill handled the war and international issues, Attlee focused on the domestic issues and the Home Front. The next Deputy Prime Minister did not appear until Margaret Thatcher appointed William Whitelaw in the 1980s (more on that later). In some cases as with Michael Heseltine under John Major the deputy premiership is to keep a rival close and onside rather than conspiring against you. Under Blair, this is what happened to Brown, but he got the Chancellorship instead.

So what of John Prescott? Why was he given the Deputy Prime Minister's position? The prime reason seems to be that it was a sop to 'Old' Labour to ensure, at least initially, that they would not cause problems for the Blairite Party, New Labour, which had come to power, effectively in coalition with them. Prescott has been ridiculed ceaselessly in the press, partly because as a worker himself (he was a seaman before turning to politics in the late 1960s) he is not glamorous or trendy. He is a stocky man with a common accent, which seems so out-of-step with 1990s politics. He is portrayed as stupid, but anyone who has read his political analysis, even dating back to the 1960s can see there is more of a brain and more political skill inside the man than most people realise. The deputy prime minister position had no portfolio so he was given a mess of things covering the regions, transport and the environment. Yet, things for which he was ridiculed such as bus lanes on motorways actually set out to achieve what they were meant to do, i.e. speed up traffic, though he never received credit for them.

Unlike Blair the glamorous leader or Brown the puritan, Prescott has behaved in the way many, many British men behave, but maybe that is not suitable in this media age. He had an affair, but so has about one-in-four ministers or party leaders of the past thirty years. He got into fights with people when provoked, but in 2003 he also saved someone from drowning. He was also ridiculed as 'two jags' Prescott for wanting two cars to ferry him and his wife around, but to me, that seemed like a man, who unlike the former lawyer Blair, had had to wait a long time for any decent perks. The key issue in all this is that Prescott has been the fall guy, when he is around to ridicule, the media have had no need to stray into picking on Blair himself. Thus, I perceive Prescott as having a 'shield' role for Blair and his regime.

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher, referring to her deputy prime minister said 'everyone needs a willy' (taken as an inadvertent joke given the references to Thatcher's butch approach to things. However, I think in much the same way, Blair needed his Prescott. Whitelaw rarely appeared to be doing much visible work and Prescott has been the same. However, as Thatcher had difficulty dealing with her Cabinet ministers and had to use Whitelaw as a go-between, so has Prescott acted for Blair, especially with those from the Old Labour camp who have been granted ministerial positions. His crucial function has been in mediating between Blair and Brown. The two have been the best of friends and the best of enemies, disagreeing on so many policies and almost falling out on many occasions. However, we already know that Prescott has been there, laying on the dinners, getting them round the table to hold the line, to keep the partnership together. Without Prescott I doubt that Blair would have been able to choose his own time to depart and Brown may have gone in any number of directions.

As a Renaissance ruler you always kept your potential rival as your 'right-hand man' literally sitting on your right, so that if needs be, being right-handed you could thrust a dagger in his back if he moved to betray you. It was the 'left-hand man' out of reach of your blade who had the greater function as conciliator and he was the one you actually trusted more even though his status was not so high. This is the role Prescott has played very well and probably at cost to his own career. I hope that with the Blair era he could put his analytical and conciliatory skills to good use. I imagine he will be forgotten once Blair has gone, but without him, Blair's government would not have been as enduring or functioned quite as well as it did.

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