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Monday, 12 July, 1999, 16:04 GMT
The 'decent' face of old Labour
Blair and Prescott Mr Prescott became deputy to Mr Blair in 1994


Prime Minister Tony Blair's recent eulogy to his faithful deputy John Prescott was not just an attempt to plaster over the confrontation between old and New Labour over public sector workers.

It was a public admission of how for more than five years the two wings of Labour had worked together in a partnership which had delivered the party into government.

"He is a decent, good man who has been a wonderful deputy to me and although he comes from the traditional wing of the Labour Party and I come from the modern wing of the Labour Party we both believe in the same things," said the prime minister.

In fact, Mr Blair and Mr Prescott epitomise the different spectrums of the Labour Party.

"I don't say we come from the same part of the Labour Party because we don't and I don't say we come from the same background because we don't," Mr Blair told BBC One's Question Time.

"We do come from different backgrounds in the Labour Party."

Indeed, few politicians could come from more different backgrounds.

The prime minister's public school background and his early career as a barrister is in marked contrast with the past of the merchant sailor and trade unionist.

'Opened my eyes'

John Leslie Prescott was born in 1938 in a seaside bungalow in Prestatyn, north Wales.

Mr Prescott and his two brothers and two sisters were brought up in South Yorkshire and Merseyside. His father, a railway signalman, and mother later divorced.

He was educated at Ellesmere Port Secondary Modern School and then as a mature student at Ruskin College Oxford and at Hull University.

He failed the 11 plus and left school at 15, with no qualifications, to become a steward on luxury sea liners.

Prescott Mr Prescott went to Ruskin in 1963
His life was transformed by attending Ruskin, of which he said: "I remember our first lecture, all the middle-class guys turned out in their revolutionary gear, we turned up in our suits.

"But I tell you Ruskin opened my eyes, opened my mind. I owe most of my life to Ruskin".

He became an official with the National Union of Seamen in 1968 until 1970 when he became the Labour MP for Hull East.

His rose to become the leader of the Labour group in the European Assembly between 1976 and 1979 and entered the shadow cabinet in 1983.

In the Commons, he built up his reputation for blunt speaking and an effective politician, becoming the opposition spokesman on transport and employment.

Serious reformer

Mr Prescott has always much more concerned about policy rather than presentation.

During the 1980s he came out with adventurous policies, including public-private finance initiatives for transport, methods of raising standards in local government and promoting devolution to the English regions.

He become deputy leader of the Labour party at his third attempt in 1994 after convincing Labour MPs and the party that he was a serious reformer and would provide a useful second to Tony Blair.

A year earlier, he had helped the then leader John Smith woo the party over to one member, one vote with an inspired speech.

Mr Smith would probably have won the vote anyway, but Mr Prescott's rousing words underlined his position as someone who could stir the passions of the party.

Battle bus

When Mr Smith died in 1994, Mr Prescott comfortably ousted Margaret Beckett as deputy leader.

The leader and deputy leader soon changed Clause Four as part of the overall drive to modernise the party and transform Labour into vote-winners.

During the 1997 general election campaign, Mr Prescott was dispatched on a battle bus to tour the marginal constituencies.

Many believed it was a strategy to get the personification of old Labour out of the way for the weeks before polling.

Prescott John Prescott: "Isolated"
But after Labour's victory he was rewarded with a mega-ministry, the newly merged Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions.

It was a department which spanned all his interests.

He also became the chair of several cabinet committees, and retained a primary role in Labour party matters.

As a minister he has sought new ways of fighting pollution, improving housing, and using private finance to develop the rail and underground networks.

But bills have been few and far between despite the scores of objectives he aimed to target.

Second term secretary

Mr Prescott is increasingly being known as the "secretary of state for the second term".

Many believe Mr Prescott feels betrayed by Downing Street for the lack of parliamentary time for his bills.

But, in public, his support for the prime minister before and since the election has been unswerving although there have been times when he has felt isolated.

Mr Prescott was out of the country for the Budget, and excluded from the Kosovo war cabinet.

And when he has filled in for Mr Blair, things have not always gone according to plan.

Prescott A crab was named Peter in Mr Mandelson's honour
In Labour's first summer, an embarrassing public battle broke out between Mr Prescott and Peter Mandelson, then minister without portfolio, about who ran the country.

But it is the mockery which greeted his times at the despatch box, standing in for the prime minister at question time, that has really shaken Mr Prescott.

The deputy prime minister has always been a conference favourite with his rousing speeches, jokes and the feeling he is always in tune with delegates.

But the mispronunciation, bungled syntax and answering of the wrong questions when he stood in for Mr Blair on the odd Wednesday afternoon gave the opposition a field day.

Keeping the coal

The years of snobbery and prejudice reared their heads. In the past, Mr Prescott has rebuffed his critics by saying: "I no longer keep the coal in the bath. I keep it in the bidet."

Some described the experience as "the most damaging and confidence-shattering half-hour of his political career" and some close to the deputy prime minister have spoken of his wider disillusionment with politics.

But after Labour's disastrous performance in June's European elections which led to doubts about Labour's grass roots vote, Mr Prescott's role is as important as ever.

Traditional supporters and trade union leaders trust Mr Prescott more than any other Cabinet minister.

It was Mr Prescott who sought to bring public sector workers back on side after the prime minister's derisive remarks about the scars he had bore from their failure to modernise.

For many, Mr Prescott reminds people of post-war Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in his attitude and background.

Prescott Pauline Prescott: The couple have two sons
But he is known to like big houses, although until 1989 he shared a flat with Labour scourge Dennis Skinner MP.

He also has a penchant for flash cars - his nickname being "two Jags" among the right-wing press.

He married his wife Pauline in 1961 and the couple have two sons, Jonathon and David.

He is a qualified diver - as a recent trip to the Maldives to publicise the demise of coral reefs - proved.

And, as a former boxer, he is known for his short fuse and occasionally exploding.

It is widely expected that Mr Prescott will survive this year's Cabinet reshuffle but whether he will get his key policy objectives through Parliament before an election is another question.

As Pauline Prescott has said: "He has always been swimming against the tide"
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