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Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 12:43 GMT
John Prescott: Deputy Prime Minister
John Prescott
Nick Assinder

If one man has done more than any other to keep Old Labour behind Tony Blair it is surely his deputy John Prescott.


The image of him, fists flying, will dog him for the rest of his career

Time and again it has been Mr Prescott who has been called upon to reassure wavering and disillusioned supporters that there is still a socialist heart beating somewhere in New Labour.

He is a star performer at Labour's annual conference where his end-of-the-pier style turns, littered with mischievous references to New and Old Labour are firm favourites with delegates and media alike.

He is often rambling and famously incoherent, but his passion has always shone through.


For how much longer Tony Blair continues to rely on him after the next election remains to be seen

Probably his most significant performance came before Tony Blair's time when previous leader John Smith relied on him to win a controversial conference vote to end the union block vote.

Things were looking bad for the leadership and it had even been claimed that Mr Smith could resign if he lost the vote.

But Mr Prescott saved the day with an off-the-cuff performance full of emotion and Old Labour style rhetoric.

Class warrior

And he is one of the few Labour frontbenchers who can still talk about class, as he did at the pre-election spring conference in Glasgow, and get away with it.

While the prime minister is firmly from the middle class, Islington wing of the party, his deputy is proud of his working class background and days as a merchant seaman.


But he had become less gaffe prone over the years and even his temper appeared to have gradually cooled, until the election fight

He can also be an intimidating personality and earned himself the nickname Thumper - at the time Mr Blair was dubbed Bambi - because of his challenging manner.

His punch-up with a protester during the 2001 election campaign is the most graphic example of that and the image of him, fists flying, will dog him for the rest of his career.

But he has past form. He openly clashed with former Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan after he called for the retention of the Trident nuclear submarine system.

He told the former PM: "You've lost us two elections in a row" and: "You are leading us like lambs to the bloody slaughter."

Long-standing dream

But his blunt approach and Old Labour credentials stood him in good stead and, he finally achieved his long-standing dream of becoming deputy Labour leader in time for the historic 1997 election.

And for weeks after that victory he seemed to have a permanent smile on his face as he was clearly loving every second of his new-found power. The smile has not survived quite to this day.

Transport minister Lord Macdonald
Macdonald keeps an eye on his boss
He has found himself constantly under attack by some sections of the media for his attachment to Jaguar cars - seeing him dubbed "Two Jags" - and his so-called constituency mansion.

He has always found it difficult to hide his dislike of particular individuals, notably Peter Mandelson, and for dropping the odd clanger.

But he had become less gaffe prone over the years and even his temper appeared to have gradually cooled - until the election fight.

Too big a department?

He has had more than his fair share of trouble at his giant Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, however, and that has seen suggestions that he might be dumped from a post-election Blair cabinet.

Many believe his task in sorting out Britain's crisis-hit transport infrastructure, on top of his other departmental and deputising duties, was simply too much for one man.


...a man others believe has changed little over the years and can still be relied upon to remind people of where his party came from

And in 1999 Tony Blair put his chum Lord Macdonald into the department, with particular responsibility for transport.

This was widely seen as a snub to Mr Prescott and heightened speculation he was gradually being sidelined.

But probably the most worrying thing for him is the suggestion that Old Labour voters no longer hold him in such high regard as they once did.

Some believe that he has failed to live up to their expectations and see him more as part of the New Labour leadership.

That may be deeply unfair to a man who others believe has changed little over the years and can still be relied upon to remind people of where his party came from.

For how much longer Tony Blair continues to rely on him after the next election remains to be seen.

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