John Prescott has, in a very real sense, become the unacceptable face of New Labour. Those grumpy jowls, that Les Dawson mouth, the fiery eyes – it’s not so much that people hate him, more that they are fed up with the sight of him.
And the sound of him. They don’t want to be reminded that the Deputy Prime Minister of Britain can barely utter a coherent sentence. Prescott has been sent to Canada to speak about climate change – in which case God help the planet. He is the image of a government which has become a bad joke.
It’s all rather reminiscent of the moment when David Mellor, the egregious “minister of fun” became an emblem of John Major’s dying administration in the 1990s. Mellor came from a very different social background, but his arrogance, his affairs, his alleged incompetence turned him, like Prescott, into the minister people loved to hate.
Mellor also took on the press and lost, accusing them of “playing in the last chance saloon” when he was the one who was drinking after time. Major insisted that he would not allow David Mellor to become a casualty of the tabloid press – but of course he eventually he eventually did. Mellor resigned because he had become “a burden”.
And so surely goes Prescott, who is too great a burden for this exhausted government. He has been stripped of his ministerial responsibilities, his grace and favour mansion and his #133,000 salary, surely, has to be next to go. The race to succeed him as Deputy Prime Minister has already begun, with the ambitious Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, pitching for the job – perhaps seeing himself as a David Cameron figure who might even snatch the Labour leadership against Brown. Who dares wins. Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, has said a woman should get the job – meaning her.
Of course it isn’t fair. John Prescott is an extremely hardworking minister, despite the croquet on the lawn, as anyone who has worked with him will testify. There is a great deal of snobbery in the way he his being pilloried in the press. There are legitimate criticisms of his conduct – having sex with someone who depends on you for their career is extremely unwise, if only because you can hardly give an objective appraisal of someone’s work when you are shagging them behind the office door. However, relationships with secretaries are hardly new in Westminster. Many prominent politicians have fallen in love with theirs, and, like the former Tory Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, married them.
Prescott has paid the price for his sexual incontinence. But he will pay the ultimate penalty for the incompetence of the administration he represents. Not because he is to blame, but because he is there. Prescott has no direct responsibility for any of the recent cock ups over illegal immigrants or the continuing tragedy that is Iraq. But he is a very big target and people who want to kick this government can hardly miss. So, the sooner he goes the better – for his own sake.
The government is beginning to disintegrate, from the top down and from the bottom up. While the leadership crisis remains unresolved, the activities of the government on the ground are blighted. Nothing works. The Home Office staggers from crisis to crisis as incompetence is piled upon confusion. Last week we learned that illegal immigrants are being given national insurance numbers, that conviction rates for serious offences are unacceptably low, according to Lord Goldsmith, and that plans are being laid for a mass early release of prisoners because of overcrowded jails.
The inability of the Home Office to get its act together is threatening race relations in this country. We’ve had inmates walking out of open jails; foreign prisoners not being deported; illegal immigrants cleaning the offices of the Immigration and Nationality Department. Public attitudes are hardening toward all immigrants, legal or otherwise, who are all being regarded as a potential threat.
Dr John Reid’s decision to take on the civil servants is understandable, but high risk. There is evidence that some of the recent revelations have come from within the Home Office from disgruntled civil servants who don’t like his style. His eighth ministerial post looks like being his last.
But the Home Office isn’t the only dysfunctional department in Whitehall. Last week we learned that the IT system for the English NHS is now fourteen billion over budget – yes, that’s #14,000,000,000. The “choose and book” system for putting medical records online wasn’t exactly cheap when it was six billion, but now the cost has risen to twenty – and doctors still aren’t using it.
Then there is the two billion that the Treasury has distributed in overpaid tax credits – for the second year running. The Child Support Agency scandal is finally being resolved – but only by winding up the entire agency and writing off billions in unpaid child maintenance. Fathers who have been paying responsibly are made to look mugs.
I’ve said it before, but this UK administration makes the Scottish Executive look like a model of competent administration. It is hard to find any area of UK government activity which seems to be running smoothly right now. This is a direct result of the collapse in authority of the Prime Minister and the evaporation of political leadership in Westminster. The government has become “accident prone” – has hacks call it – just as in the dying days of John Major. The stench of sleaze, following the loans-for honours scandals is also redolent of a decadent administration which is on its way out.
It is a measure of the government’s desperation that Labour MPs are seriously looking to the World Cup to draw a line under this catalogue of misfortune. Yes, David Beckham’s men are expected to ride to Blair’s rescue by putting up a good show and uniting the country once again – give or take Scotland. You may laugh, but it is imprinted in Labour’s collective memory that Harold Wilson won the 1966 general election on the back of England’s victory in the world cup that year. Perhaps, some Labour analysts think, history might repeat itself. Some hope. Voters aren’t so easily fooled these days.
Though there is, perhaps, an opportunity here for the government to regroup. From Friday, England will become obsessed with what is happening in Germany and Prescott’s belly will become an unpleasant memory. This is a window through which Labour might be able to toss some of the rubbish that has accumulated in the last few months – such as John Prescott himself. But even a World Cup victory could not salvage his boss – the rot has gone too far.
However, the summer sporting events might just possibly provide an opportunity for Gordon Brown to take over as captain, and for Blair to get a free transfer to the US lecture circuit. It is as plain as the three lions on England’s shirts that the only way to put this government together again is to provide a new leadership, a new start under a new man. There is still time – just.
If England do well, and the country is at peace, Tony Blair might see it as a moment to announce that he is going to go after the Labour conference in September. Unfortunately, that’s about as likely as Trinidad and Tobago winning the World Cup.