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Last Updated: Monday, 27 August 2007, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
Profile: John Prescott
John Prescott is known for his pugnacious style
John Prescott has long had run-ins with the media

Former deputy prime minister John Prescott, who is standing down after 37 years as an MP, has had a colourful career.

A favourite target of the tabloid press, dubbed "Two Jags" - after the two official Jaguar cars he is meant to have had at one point - he is fiercely proud of his working-class roots, portraying himself as firmly "Old Labour".

His down-to-earth image proved vital to the New Labour project, forming a bridge between the party's grassroots and the new breed of Labour politician at the top of the party.

"We are all middle class now," he said before the 1997 general election, neatly summing up Tony Blair's "big tent" philosophy.

He was rewarded shortly after Labour's landslide victory with his own, specially-created "super department", spanning transport, planning, the regions and the environment.

But he ended his time in government after 10 years in June with no ministerial brief of his own and was seen by many as a peripheral figure.

In recent years, Mr Prescott's strained relations with the media have become even worse.


He admitted an affair with former secretary Tracey Temple and was subsequently relieved of many of his duties.

He kept his salary, an apartment at London's Admiralty House and other perks but felt compelled to give up his grace and favour country pile, Dorneywood, after being pictured on its lawns playing croquet with his staff.

It was later revealed that he had met would-be super-casino owner Philip Anschutz seven times and stayed at his Colorado ranch overnight.

The revelation played into the hands of his critics inside and outside the Labour Party, though Mr Prescott insisted plans for a super casino had never been discussed.

Newspaper editorials demanded: "Just what is John Prescott for?"

The answer: He still chaired nine Cabinet committees and deputised for Mr Blair on seven others. He also ran the country while the PM took his summer breaks.

And there was still a sense that Mr Prescott provided an antidote to the spin and slick presentation of New Labour.

He was often ridiculed by Parliamentary sketch writers for mangling the English language. The modern management speak that infects politics seemed to give him particular problems.

But to supporters he appeared an ordinary man, facing the intellectual bullying of those who had a better education.

Mr Prescott's favourite film is Billy Elliot, which tells the tale of a northern working-class boy who fights prejudice and poverty to become a leading ballet dancer.

Fighting back: Prescott scuffles with a demonstrator in 2001
Fighting back: Prescott scuffles with a demonstrator in 2001

The parallels are not hard to see.

Mr Prescott was born in Prestatyn, north Wales, in 1938, the son of a railwayman.

His childhood was neither affluent nor deprived. Indeed, the Prescott family won 1,000 in a competition to find the "most typical British family of 1951".

He failed the 11-plus - something which still grates even today - and attended Ellesmere Port Secondary Modern before joining the Merchant Navy, where he worked as a ship's steward during the last days of the great ocean liners.

Among those he served with drinks was a former prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden. And though the wages - including generous tips from passengers - were very good, it brought home to Prescott the reality of the class divide.

His close emotional identification with Billy Elliot - which he has seen at least six times - runs deep.

He told one interviewer: "This lad Billy rose up against the prejudices of his community and against the very structure of that community and said, 'This is what I am. This is how I want to live my life'.

"He had to fight with all the love he had for his family and his community to be true to himself. And yes, that moved me. It made me cry."

Passionate orator

Mr Prescott, honed by his time as a shop steward in the National Union of Seamen and a spell at Ruskin College in Oxford, soon made his mark on the national stage.

He entered Parliament in 1970, a Bennite class-warrior, joining Labour's shadow cabinet as a transport spokesman in 1979.

Perhaps his greatest claim to fame came in 1993 when he called for the end to the union block vote and was credited with saving the then Labour leader John Smith from a humiliating defeat.

Steward-turned-student: Prescott during his Ruskin College days
Steward-turned-student: Prescott during his Ruskin College days
But his lack of education, and taunts from the Conservative benches - including Nicholas Soames' "Mine's a gin and tonic, Giovanni, and would you ask my friend what he's having?" - left Prescott with a hatred of the Tories.

After Smith's death Mr Prescott's star rose further - deputy leader in 1994, deputy prime minister three years later.

His mantra was clear and unwavering - Labour had to show "traditional values in a modern setting".

Mr Prescott's role as a power-broker and counsellor smoothed the often strained relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and also helped ensure a trouble-free transition from one leader to the other.

And his 2004 assertion, that "the tectonic plates appear to be moving" within the government, seemed to suggest he thought Tony Blair should have made way for his successor sooner rather than later.

His original title was deputy prime minister and first secretary of state for environment, transport and the regions - "the only minister with a job title bigger than his vocabulary", according to Sir Norman Fowler.

In his environment role - which was later hived off into a separate department - he was a key player in agreeing Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 1997.

But his dream of directly elected regional assemblies hit the rocks in 2004 when north-east England overwhelmingly rejected the idea in a referendum.

Verbal slip-ups

Mr Prescott's reputation for hot-headedness remains.

The man who said in 1994: "I don't pursue vendettas or punch people on the nose," lit-up the dull 2001 general election by, well, punching a man on the chin.

"John is John," shrugged Tony Blair the following day, after pictures of Mr Prescott scuffling with a bystander who threw an egg at him had been beamed around the world.

Then there is Mr Prescott's singular verbal style.

"The green belt is a Labour achievement, and we mean to build on it," he told one reporter. After a rough flight, Mr Prescott quipped: "It's great to be back on terra cotta."

And he once described government transport policy thus: "We are now taking proper, putting the amount of resources and investment to move what we call extreme conditions which must now regard as normal."

Tony Blair once told a Labour conference a story about the man employed by Prince Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, to carry a black stick with a pig's bladder on the end and wake him up at night to remind him he was only mortal.

"Would I need a bloke with a stick and a pig's bladder when I have John Prescott?," joked Mr Blair.

In other words, Mr Prescott's role had been to provide a reality check, just in case anyone thought Mr Blair was becoming a little too grand - or too removed from the concerns of ordinary people.

He was a steadfast and loyal deputy - and as such his political fortunes were irrevocably tied to those of the prime minister.

They came into office together and left at the same time.

Now, just two months later, Mr Prescott, who was recently treated for pneumonia, has announced he is to end his career as an MP.

His supporters say this has come as no surprise but add that what has often been forgotten by the media is Mr Prescott's "common touch" and his dedication to his constituents.

As Steve Brady, chairman of Hull East Labour Party, puts it: "He's practised that throughout his political life and no matter what the national media say about John, he is a good MP and has served this constituency excellently."

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