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Wednesday, 8 December, 1999, 10:45 GMT
Labour's beleaguered deputy
Blair and Prescott John Prescott became deputy to Tony Blair in 1994

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is used to being on the receiving end of the media's vitriol.

The minister the tabloids call "two Jags" was once able to joke about the constant sniping from the press and opposition. "I feel like a fox - it's open season on me at the open," he said recently.

The government hopes to outlaw hunting with hounds but stemming the attacks on the deputy prime minister could prove harder.

He is a decent, good man who has been a wonderful deputy to me.
Tony Blair
The Tory opposition day debate effectively demands Prime Minister Tony Blair either back his beleaguered deputy or sack him.

But there is speculation that Mr Blair would find it hard to get rid of Mr Prescott, the epitome of old Labour in a very new Labour cabinet, even if he wanted to.

When the pair were seen to be at loggerheads over the government's attitude to public sector workers, they still managed to plaster over the cracks.

Mr Blair said: "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."

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 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 Oxford, 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, if somewhat convoluted, speaking and as 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 were few and far between despite the scores of objectives he aimed to target, until this year's Queen's Speech.

Some commentators suggest that transport was only included this time because of the influence of the Transport Minister Lord Macdonald, the fifth person to hold that post since the election.

Prescott A crab was named Peter in Mr Mandelson's honour
Yet, in public, Mr Prescott's support for the prime minister before and since the election has been unswerving despite appearing to be increasingly 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.

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 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.

I no longer keep the coal in the bath. I keep it in the bidet.
John Prescott
Up until this year, 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 a 200-yard journey by car to make a speech asking motorists to cut down on their journeys was badly misjudged and gave the media a field day.

It was also notable that Mr Prescott did not deliver his usual final day speech, normally a high point of the conference.

At the same time, the deputy prime minister has acknowledged that his campaigning role within the Labour party is to be scaled down.

Mr Prescott has also lost several of his valued allies in government reshuffles this year.

All this, in the face of increasing attacks about his competence at the helm of one of the government's biggest departments.

Mr Prescott is known to like flash cars and big houses, although until 1989 he shared a flat with Labour scourge Dennis Skinner MP.

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

Away from politics, Mr Prescott is a keen diver. As a young man he also boxed and is known for his short fuse and occasionally exploding.

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

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See also:
08 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Hostile homecoming for Prescott
05 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Prescott: I will not quit
08 Dec 99 |  UK
'Gobbledygook' prize for Prescott and Hoddle

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