Peter Oborne

Poor, proud Prescott will soon be hauled off to the knackerā€™s yard

Poor, proud Prescott will soon be hauled off to the knacker's yard

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The origins of government mishandling of the firefighters' strike are to be found in the immediate aftermath of the general election in June last year, when Tony Blair failed to sack John Prescott. The Deputy Prime Minister had proved a strikingly incompetent transport secretary during the 1997-2001 Parliament. Commuters are suffering the consequences today. Prescott could easily have been farmed out to the backbenches: his infamous slugging match with a Welsh farm-worker during the election campaign gave an additional excuse.

Some of the Prime Minister's advisers wanted Prescott out, but in the end Tony Blair lacked the courage to make a clean break. It may well be that Gordon Brown stood up for Prescott, with whom he has formed an alliance. Nevertheless, it was obvious to all concerned that Prescott could not be trusted to handle a proper government department. In the end a berth was found for him at the Cabinet Office. The Blair team felt that he would cause least trouble there, and an eye could be kept on him.

In order to salvage Prescott's wounded pride, Downing Street preposterously claimed that the Deputy Prime Minister was set to play the central co-ordinating role in Whitehall from his new, lofty perch. Alastair Campbell briefed lobby correspondents the day after the election that Prescott 'would act with the full authority of the Prime Minister in overseeing the delivery of manifesto pledges as well as dealing with important cross-departmental issues'. (The text of this lobby briefing on the evening of 8 June 2001 can still be found on the Downing Street website: it makes for eye-popping reading.) Warming to his theme, Campbell went on to assert that Prescott would occupy the same role under Blair as Michael Heseltine played for the last two years of John Major's government. This was sheer bilge, as Campbell must have known better than anyone. The Times splashed its early editions with this amusing story, as a make-do before the election results were known.

There was a price to be paid for this failure of will. It swiftly became apparent that Prescott's Cabinet Office was a shambles. Civil servants did not know whether they were reporting to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, or whoever. Several months passed, and then a quiet office reorganisation cut Prescott right out of the chain of command. He was left with an enormous office some way down Whitehall, and two grace-and-favour residences - a flat in Admiralty Arch in addition to Dorneywood in Buckinghamshire. This last was an irregular arrangement. The huge Dorneywood country estate is meant to be used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But Gordon Brown handed it over to Prescott as sub-lessee.

There matters might have rested, with the Deputy Prime Minister downgraded to an honorific role, had it not been for the forced resignation of Stephen Byers last May. Tony Blair chose this moment to collapse the grotesquely overstretched Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, over which Prescott, then poor Byers, had presided. In another moment of propitiation of Prescott, the Prime Minister asked him to reassume responsibility for the local government part of that portfolio, including firefighters' pay and conditions.

By the time this ill-fated transaction took place, it was obvious that the firefighters were intent on strike action. The decision to put Prescott in day-to-day charge of events was reckless. The astonishing absence of preparation; the lack of clarity about objectives; the pathetic indecision about whether or not to cross picket lines; the failure to train up the troops well in advance; the false messages sent out to firefighters that a deal was on the cards; the shambolic collapse of negotiations on 22 November: all of this flowed from the culpable decision last May to hand over the local government portfolio to Prescott.

As was easily predictable, Tony Blair has this week stepped in to take charge, in a crippling snub to his Deputy Prime Minister. Both the decision by Tony Blair to hold a press conference on the crisis on Monday and the decision to order the pensions minister Ian McCartney on to the Today programme were humiliating to Prescott. It may well be that the Deputy Prime Minister's unnecessary statement to Parliament on Tuesday - in which he blurted out a plan to cut 10,000 firefighters' jobs - was an attempt to regain personal control of the situation.

It now looks all but certain that Tony Blair will secure a victory in this firefighters' strike: I would guess he will emerge with his credit enhanced. One can only feel sorry for the firefighters. Till now nobody has taken much interest in their comfortable working practices, their second jobs and generous pension arrangements. This tranquillity would have remained undisturbed but for Andy Gilchrist's carelessness in bringing it all to public attention. Ministers now account themselves transfixed by the fact that 19,000 soldiers over the past week appear to have carried out with ease work previously carried out by 50,000 trained firefighters. 'Modernisation' - New Labour for job cuts - looks inevitable. The firefighters that remain will find themselves doing a full week's work. This strike battle has brought the two warring halves of New Labour - Gordon Brown and Tony Blair - back (temporarily) together. It is a fight that the government must and, I imagine, will win.

The losers will be the firefighters - and poor Mr Prescott. All of us have moments in our lives at which we look back obsessively and ask ourselves whether we did the right thing. That moment came to John Prescott at 5.30 a.m. last Friday morning when the draft agreement between employers and unions was brought to his attention. It was the moment that he died as a politician. It was open to him to act with his full authority as Deputy Prime Minister, Cabinet minister and Labour politician of four decades standing - and accept that flawed deal. A big man would have brushed aside subsequent protests from No. 10 and the Treasury, and offered his resignation if anyone overturned his assurances.

There was a nobility about Prescott's action. He has betrayed the unions who gave him what credibility he ever had as a politician, and they will never forgive him for it. His blundering behaviour over the summer, evident goodwill and yearning for a deal led the firefighters on - so they could be more readily destroyed in the end by Blair, Brown and the government machine. This was Prescott's final service for New Labour, a cause for which he has never felt a warmer emotion than ambivalence. Now he will be spat out, because he has no value left.