Iain Dale has launched a scathing attack on the deputy Prime Minister on his blog today. Iain I think completely misses the role that Prescott has played in the last ten years of Labour government and ever since 1994- Prescott has never really led the policy debate within the Labour party, having said that one never knows what has gone on behind the scenes in meetings that we are unaware of, but he has kept this government going. Prescott's role has been to dominate the party executive, the NEC, to play the game of conciliating the Labour party. He was central to the successful attempt by John Smith to get the party to accept one member one vote in 1993 and was crucial to the party's acceptance of Tony Blair himself as leader. He could always be relied to stoke the fires of class war and rouse the Labour base. He compared himself at one point as holding the brakes on Blair's train driver- an interesting image whcih reflects both the man's vulnerability but also his importance to the project. Prescott at the conference and less noticed by no less crucially at the NEC was a figure that pulled the party along with the New Labour project.
No less importantly Prescott provided much of the personal ballast within the government. As a senior figure, without aspirations to run the country, he was able to perform the role of an honest broker. Just as an example, as the Prime Minister and Chancellor entered one of their periods of mutual sniping in November 2003, it was the Deputy Prime Minister who summoned them together and made a deal between the two of them. As the years have gone by, Prescott's neutrality between the two has meant that he has been able to face down both of them and make them get on. Functioning as the ballast of the government his role has not been so much to govern as to enable other people to govern- in particular to enable the two dominant personalities within the government to continue functioning together.
One recalls, in a comparison Mr Prescott would hate, some words from the Guardian obituary of Willie Whitelaw which sum up Prescott's impact upon the government rather well: he was the
crucial prop and lubricant of a government which transformed both the nation and the... party in ways which he was later to find thoroughly distasteful.
Prescott's role as the lubricant to this government was different from Whitelaw's role in Thatcher's government but no less important to its survival. Indeed one wonders whether Prescott's missed opportunity was in not realising that he could have forced Blair to cede more authority to him- whether the fact he was an outsider meant that the Deputy Prime Minister always shrank to the role of a mediator without realising the true power that he wielded. Having said that, I disagree fundamentally with Iain- the government's acheivements have all been achieved because of the presence of the member from Hull, he may have been absurd, comical and have a love life from a Carry-On Film but his abilities to appeal to the hearts of the Labour movement and understand its procedures (which bored Blair) not to mention his ability to keep the Blair Brown partnership going can't be underrated. In the end this government would not have been as happy or lasted as long without Prescott and that is his achievement.