'Off with his head' - Prescott must go

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Croquet is often described as a vicious game. And deputy prime minister John Prescott should concur, given the malleting he has received from the media and political opponents after being photographed playing the game last Thursday on the lawns of Dorneywood, one of the 'grace and favour' residences he has use of.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Croquet is often described as a vicious game. And deputy prime minister John Prescott should concur, given the malleting he has received from the media and political opponents after being photographed playing the game last Thursday on the lawns of Dorneywood, one of the 'grace and favour' residences he has use of.

Francis Drake supposedly had to be dragged from a game of bowls to take on the Spanish Armada, and that somehow added to the charisma. Prezza's croquet, by contrast, has added to the opprobrium.

There's something surreal about this. Something akin to the croquet game in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, where flamingoes were used as mallets and a horrible old queen kept shouting 'Off with his head!' In Britain in 2006 playing croquet also suddenly seems a capital offence, and those suggesting it ought to be in Prezza's case include EU commissioner Peter Mandelson.


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Why have the pictures caused such a stir? Principally because they reinforce the popular view - it certainly isn't the case that it's held only at Westminster - that Mr Prescott should have been fired over his affair with his diary secretary Tracey Temple, and that he has been wrongly allowed to carry on drawing a substantial ministerial salary and enjoying attendant perks (including use of Dorneywood) for carrying out a non-job. It's the last part that is especially germane. If Mr Prescott is actually doing a proper and useful job for the government and country, why was he playing croquet about 30 miles from Westminster on a Thursday afternoon?

In some minds that question was given extra strength by the fact that Tony Blair had just flown out of Britain to talk to President Bush in Washington. Didn't that mean that Mr Prescott, as DPM, had been left in charge? The official answer to that is 'No' because Mr Blair was still running things until he began his holiday this week, in Italy, on Saturday.

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We must in any case be realistic about these things. In an age of instant communication, Mr Blair will always be really running the shop even if Mr Prescott is nominally manning the counter. If a Category A decision had to be taken, about for example Iraq, top officials would be communicating within minutes if not seconds with the prime minister, even if he were on a beach in Bermuda, rather than taking the issue to Mr Prescott. How can anyone seriously suppose that if it came this week to firing Trident missiles in Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, the decision - and the finger on the button - would be Mr Prescott's?

So what does Prezza actually do as DPM after the removal of his departmental responsibilities? Well, he has lots of cabinet committees to chair. He retains a role as an ambassador for Mr Blair to the 'Old Labour' parts of their party. And he is also useful as a mediator between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown and as someone who can preside over attempts to secure an orderly transition from one to the other.

Do these justify the keeping of his title, salary and perks, however? Not in my book. He should stand down as DPM and quit the cabinet. He could still remain deputy leader of the Labour Party, if the party is daft enough to want that, and carry on trying to smooth things over between Tony and Gordon.

It is possible of course that the hitting of croquet balls was just background to serious conversation between Mr Prescott and senior aides about important government business. It is difficult to present it in that way, however. And if that were the truth, who would believe it? Prezza has become such a deeply discredited figure that there is no way back.

The relationship with Ms Temple has damaged him greatly. Some say that 'it was only an affair', but even in this day and age many people take a dim view of sexual infidelity - and all the more so if it perpetrated by someone with such a grand title as deputy prime minister.

In one respect I have sympathy for Mr Prescott. Much of the mockery of him in the media has come from privately educated parliamentary sketch writers who think it funny to ridicule people with working class accents getting above themselves. Commons Speaker Michael Martin has suffered from the same phenomenon.

But Mr Prescott has brought a lot of the adverse criticism upon himself. He is often crude, rude or bullying. And his behaviour in relation to Ms Temple was execrable. Some of the frolicking was conducted on government premises and, more seriously, before officials in his old department who could not but be compromised. Off with his head!

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