Prezza and correct
John Prescott traded on his working-class roots and rose to the top of the Labour tree – but it still irks him that he gets a raw deal in the press. So he's setting the record straight, beginning with Jackie McGlone
GORDON BROWN has one big problem, says John Prescott, comfortably slumped on a plump armchair in his impressive office at the House of Commons. Only one? "Yes, only the one – he doesn't smile enough."
That's rich, coming from the former deputy prime minister who used to sit on the front bench looking like a bulldog that had chewed a wasp, I tell him. "Aye, but Gordon looks like he's chewing two wasps," he responds, with a loud guffaw.
Prescott, who is 70 on 31 May, laughs a lot, despite his cartoon image as New Labour's Mr Grumpy. ("I refuse to use the word New.") He likes to tell jokes. After all, he's been the butt of so many, especially since revealing prior to the publication of his autobiography, Prezza, My Story: Pulling No Punches, that he suffered from the eating disorder bulimia nervosa for ten years.
He agrees that had a female politician – perhaps one of "Westminster's Sisters" as he's nicknamed Harriet Harman, Patricia Hewitt, et al – admitted to bingeing on food and then purging and vomiting, she would have received a much more sympathetic press. "What really annoys me is the fact that they've written, 'If he was throwing up all the time, why's he so fat? He should be thin'. I didn't have anorexia; it was stress-induced bulimia," he says, hooking his right leg over the arm of his chair.
"I came out about it before the book was published – just as I made it public that I'd been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2000 – because a Daily Mail journalist was sniffing round the story. I'm over it now; I'm fine. I don't eat as much and I go to the gym. Also, I've had hundreds of letters thanking me, especially from men and boys. Look, I know it's not the sort of thing you expect in a politician's autobiography, but this is my story. I'll do another book telling the full political story because I've got drawers full of policy stuff, but that awaits more reflection.
"Anyway, I suppose you could say that my bulimia is the Prescott equivalent of not taking your contraceptive equipment to Balmoral," he says, with a sly grin, a reference to Cherie Blair's much-publicised "confession" in her memoir, Speaking For Myself.
You have to laugh, because Prescott's comic timing is spot-on. Indeed, there's a touch of the Les Dawsons about him and the big news is that it appears he's about to do a Michael Portillo and pursue a career in television, although he remains MP for Hull East until the next election.
Currently, he's preparing to film part of an episode of The F Word, with Gordon Ramsay, who is going to the Prescotts' large, turreted Hull home – which Prescott says the glamorous, 68-year-old Pauline, his wife of 47 years, keeps perfect – to cook a low-fat meal. "I'm really going to wind Ramsay up," he promises.
"When he's finished cooking I'm planning to walk in stuffing my face from a big bag of chips. By the way, Paul (as he calls his wife] has put up a big notice, 'No swearing in my kitchen.'"
The air will probably be navy blue, he concedes, though he insisted that the Scottish-born writer Hunter Davies, who ghosted his book, deleted the hundreds of f-words that littered the first draft. "It made me look like this thick northern lad. F*** that!" he says nursing a mug of bright orange builders' tea.
I imagine that such language rarely passes his lips, I tell him. "That's the first time I've ever sworn in front of you, isn't it?" says Prescott, twisting around in his chair to address his former press secretary, now a researcher in his office, who is sitting in on the interview. "I've never heard you say 'f***' before," responds Alan Schofield, somehow keeping a straight face.
As well as having fun with Ramsay, Prescott is making a TV documentary about class for production company Tiger Aspect. He has strong views on the subject. So he identifies with Cherie Blair, who has justified her autobiography by saying she wanted to tell how a poor, working-class girl from Liverpool, made it to Number 10 and scaled the heights of the legal profession? "Cherie? Working-class? I saw no evidence of that," he says.
"The TV people think I'm an expert on class. I dunno why, as I was saying yesterday when we were playing croquet at home in our garden for the TV cameras – Paul beat me 2-1, she always beats me."
Croquet? "We've always had croquet equipment around the place, long before the Dorneywood incident," he replies, referring to the notorious occasion, shortly after the story broke that he had had an affair with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple, when he was photographed playing croquet with some of his staff on the lawn at his then official country residence in Buckinghamshire.
"It went on and on, picked up by all the columnists and comedians," he sighs wearily. "I knew what they were trying to do, make the same point about me they've been trying to make for the past 30-odd years. They want to expose a working-class man for enjoying the good things in life. It's part of their campaign to prove that I'm living it up, running two Jags – which I never had, by the way, when in government, and having lots of houses, while milking the taxpayer."
As to the affair, he says: "It happened. I'm guilty and I'm ashamed of it, but I won't go into personal details because I haven't done that in the book. I hurt all the people I love, particularly Pauline and our boys – Johnathan and David – and I've said all I'm going to say about it."
Nonetheless, he regrets it. "Paul's been our rock. As I've written in the book, she felt that she could stay bitter about it and let that cloud her life, or she could move on. And we have, thanks to her good sense and wisdom. You know, when I first met her, she was a great beauty, an Elizabeth Taylor lookalike. Still is. But I underestimated her intelligence. She's a sensible, mature woman, much, much wiser than me."
He can barely conceal his fury at the snubs his wife, a former hairdresser, has received, both from the press and within the Blair regime, although he won't say a bad word about the former PM, despite the fact that he and Pauline received only two invitations to Chequers in a decade. "I used to tell her that they didn't entertain ministers and their wives, but then that Liberal bloke discovered all these celebrities had been there – ministers, too. We went there on Paul's 60th birthday because Al Gore, who's a friend of mine, asked that we be invited."
Clearly, this sense of being the political chavs, or the poor relations from "oop North", still rankles with Prescott. "But the press hasn't been kind to Paul. They've called her Bette Davis! They've criticised the fact she uses hair spray and been catty about her clothes – she always looks stunning, although I can't stand her big hats. She has a bloody Berlin Wall of them. I used to get a member of my staff to walk beside her at the State Opening of Parliament because I was embarrassed by her hats, which you can shelter under if it's raining."
If his wife has taken her share of knocks, so has he, as he writes in his autobiography, which is surprisingly enjoyable and rather like him: awkward, entertaining, and sometimes quite touching.
He speaks movingly, for instance, of his sense of inferiority caused by his problems as an 11-plus failure with the English language ("The Green Belt is a Labour achievement and we intend to build on it", though he denies ever saying after a stormy flight, "It's great to be back on terra cotta") and his role as peacemaker in the Blair-Brown battles.
Surely the timing of the publication of his book, Cherie's and that of Lord Levy could not be worse for an embattled Prime Minister?
"Well, the publishers brought Cherie's book forward and there's strong stuff on Gordon, which may well have motivated them. It's mischief to get at Gordon, whose present troubles are not of his making – he can't do anything about the global economy.
"Yes, he's a frustrating, annoying, bewildering, prickly man, but he's also a very brilliant man, a really innovative chancellor. As for the stories that I told Tony to sack him, that's not what I've written. I'm certainly not the one putting a dagger into Brown. I didn't write this book out of revenge; it was to set the record straight after all these years of being called a buffoon and far worse."
Draining his tea, he pauses thoughtfully when I ask if that chip on the shoulder is no longer a full fish supper? "Oh aye," he replies, with a laugh. "It's taken me nearly 70 years to realise that you don't have to wear the chip all the time. But as for the punch-ups and thumping the egg-thrower, I've no regrets. I'll always fight back."
Will he go to the Lords? "I'm against too much flunkery and titles. But Paul would like me to. I tell her, 'What do you want to be Lady Prescott for? You're a lady already'."
• Prezza, My Story: Pulling No Punches by John Prescott (Headline, 18.99).
TONY BLAIR: Yes, I did call him a little shit to his face, after learning that he and Gordon Brown, with Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, David Milliband (one of the No10 Mekons), Jonathan Powell and Tom Sawyer had held a secret meeting to discuss election strategy in 1994. I was bloody furious, but he never excluded me again. Without Tony, we would never have won three elections. I don't think we'd have achieved that had John Smith lived, despite the fact he was so warm and humorous, clever and talented. His early death was a tragedy for his family and for the Labour Party.
ROBIN COOK: He was probably the most brilliant parliamentarian of our times – but he was well aware of it. All politicians are self-centred, but he was the worst I ever met. Tony and Gordon didn't like it when he would suggest behind their backs that he could do a better job than they were doing.
HILLARY CLINTON: I never liked her, still don't – a cold woman. She's damaging the Democratic Party by refusing to stand down.
HARRIET HARMAN: I certainly would never have voted for her as deputy leader. I did find it amusing, though, when she said to me, "John, you know where all the bodies are buried. Perhaps we could have a word some time?" Strange that she believes that being deputy leader is all about hiding stuff. I just smiled. That's for me to know, I thought, and you to find out.
OPENING HIS MOUTH AND PUTTING HIS FOOT IN IT: I think my problem is my brain works faster than my mouth.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west