Philip Hensher

The autobiography of a fig leaf

Philip Hensher on John Prescott's autobiography

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Prezza: My Story, Pulling No Punches

John Prescott

Headline, pp. 416, £

There are going to be plenty more of these, no doubt, even though the Blair administration doesn’t strike one as having been a government full of natural diary- keepers or memoir writers. Still, the incentive of publishers’ lucre presses strongly on those recently deprived of office — John Prescott, in this memoir, remarks guilelessly that he had no idea, until he stood down, quite how expensive London property was. Mrs Blair and now John Prescott have probably been wise to dash into print with books, however atrocious in execution and deplorable in intention, before too much time elapses. If past experience is anything to go by, there will soon be more ministers’ memoirs than there are customers to buy them; and, without a doubt, Prescott’s will be quite forgotten in a very few years.

I find this an astonishing volume, for a number of reasons, but the central one is that it doesn’t resemble a politician’s autobiography at all. It hasn’t been written by Prescott himself, who makes no bones about not being a great reader, to put it mildly, and having difficulty in writing anything at all. Instead, it is ghosted by the doyen of celebrity autobiographers, Hunter Davies. I doubt that either of them troubled the archive-keepers of Whitehall in search of detailed records of Prescott’s ministerial career. It reads exactly as if Davies, just as with his previous subjects, the footballers Wayne Rooney, Dwight Yorke and Paul Gascoigne, placed a tape-recorder in front of his garrulous subject and arranged his verbal reminiscences in chronological order. It did very well for a footballer, but Davies ought to have wondered whether such a method was likely to do justice to the august dignity of Her Majesty’s Deputy Prime Minister.

Or perhaps he took one look at his subject and recognised that, in all fairness, it was a bit late to start worrying about dignity. Some people might have thought that Prescott’s achievement would be something to be proud of. To hold office in government for ten years ought to be impressive, particularly when you consider that Prescott started life with almost no education, and only in his twenties, already married and with children, took any steps to put this right. He ran a giant government department, and the job of Deputy Prime Minister has to be worth something.

Instead of a sense of pride, his autobiography is full of painful over-defensiveness. The stench of resentment rises mephitically from these pages like halitosis. The girl he sent a love letter to as an adolescent returned it with all the spelling mistakes corrected. Universities exist, you might conclude, only to ‘make [the working classes] feel inferior’. Tony Blair only invited him and his wife to Chequers once or twice. Petronella Wyatt forced him to get drunk at a Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year lunch — this last rather ungratefully overshadowing the fact that the magazine had generously recognised his debating skills with an award. The sulking goes on, unstoppably. There are no statues of Prescott in the House of Commons. The Queen made him bow to her through cunning and insulting subterfuge. Journalists made fun of his poor verbal skills in speech and writing.

Well, that last one is true: we certainly did. Prescott, from beginning to end of this book, tries to make a distinction between ‘grammar’, as he calls it, and intelligence: the claim is that he is richly endowed with native pre-verbal intelligence, but is incapable of putting it into words. Rather like, say, a labrador. Here is that pre-verbal intelligence at work:

Tony is still a relatively young man . . . In his role as UN Middle East envoy, he is doing an important job in trying to achieve a settlement between Israel and Palestine. But I think Tony still has sights on a more permanent statesman role, such as EU president.

Whether this is verbal or pre-verbal stupidity at work, we will not trouble to discover. If it were a genuine distinction, it is unlikely that anyone would be able to appreciate a pre-verbal intelligence through the medium of an autobiography. No: the truth is that he really is fairly thick.

It ought to be easy, in recounting a political career of this length to list the major achievements. Most politicians write memoirs to establish something in the way of a legacy. But, having read this book with some care, I am at a loss to tell you what Prescott ever did. He was a negotiator at the Kyoto summit on global warming. He was the first one, he says, to propose that vast numbers of new state employees be created — ‘Today, the two million new jobs created in the last ten years have been mainly in the public service, as I advocated’ — though I really wouldn’t boast about that if I were him. Other than that, even Prescott is reduced to making a big deal out of ‘new legislation [which] allowed owners to pay tax on the tonnage of their ships rather than their profits’. What did he actually achieve? You have to compare the utterly trivial level of policy analysis in this book to the sort of detailed and powerful survey of a political legacy in, say, Nigel Lawson’s or Denis Healey’s memoirs to see how very little Prescott did, or tried to do.

His value, clearly, was as a mascot, a sentimental souvenir of the party’s past. He says, of Blair’s abandonment of Clause 4 — the one about the nationalisation of the means of production and distribution — that ‘he told me he wouldn’t be able to carry it with the Party if I said “No, I’m all against it” ’. Here he comes unknowingly near what everyone can see is the truth. Prescott stayed where he was, untouchably, for so long as the merest fig leaf to cover the Blairite revolution. As an old-style Union man he allowed the Left to delude themselves that Blair’s administration still had a socialist of some sort in a significant position. By the time everyone else had worked out that Prescott’s usefulness to the government was precisely that he could be left out of discussions and would never achieve anything very much, electoral success would protect his status as well as Blair’s, and the value of a toothless, ineffective member of Old Labour in that position would have been comprehensively demonstrated. He would always be as safe as houses, the poor deluded sap.

And, my God, his politics remained tribal. He still doesn’t see what was wrong about the 1984 miners’ strike, or why the rash of wilful industrial action on the slightest grounds in the 1960s had to be curbed. Tories are always immensely wicked, and he says — I can’t imagine that he could stick to this resolution in the House of Commons — he would never speak to any of them. Much of the pre-publication press about this lamentable tale has focused on the bulimia, the scandalous affair with a serving civil servant, the two Jaguars (one private, one official), and the physical assault on a protesting member of the public, after which deplorable episode the book, amazingly, is subtitled. But that, surely, is the most incredible feature of this memoir; that outside the particular tribal pale there was nothing worth looking at or thinking about. Out there, only barbarians; and yet the barbarians were, unknown to themselves, within the gates.

I always thought that there was something highly Dickensian about John Prescott, an impression which the confessions of private gorging do nothing to dispel. And now I know who he is: a sort of non-drinking Mrs Gamp. At the end, he enlists the support of an anonymous army of Mrs Harrises, all telling him how wonderful he is:

When I meet people in the street, they’re still as pleased to see me as they were 40 years ago. I don’t get booed or hissed at, just because I’m an M. P. . . . Since leaving the Government, I’ve been getting an even nicer rec eption, to my surprise. In fact, I hardly dare say it, but everywhere I go these days I seem to be met with affection.

I fear that if Prescott believes that this supposedly overwhelming public adoration is likely to translate into sales of his terrible autobiography, he’s in for a disappointment. I’ve never seen a book with ‘remainder bin’ written so clearly all over it.