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View from the House

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is notoriously on a short fuse and subject to sharp bursts of rage. But as the man standing in for Tony Blair, now taking paternity leave, he will be on a very short lead as well.

Because, whatever the headlines may say, Prescott is not really running the country in the absence of the Prime Minister. Should a crisis overtake the country, then the Prime Minister will at once emerge from the nursery so that he can very visibly take charge of proceedings.

That does not mean to say that Prescott will not exploit to the full this rare. He started with a boisterous, if uninformative, Commons question time last Wednesday. But the Prime Minister, if he watched those exchanges on television, must have done so in a state of deep anxiety bordering on panic.

Because for all his pugnacious and even likeable qualities, Prescott is not a safe pair of hands. On a previous occasion when he had to handle Prime Minister’s questions, Prescott made a spectacular botch of it, even to the point where it was obvious that he did not even know of the existence of the Withholding Tax, never mind any knowledge of its purpose.

But Prescott, former deck-scrubber and steward to the wealthy aboard cruise liners (a tricky job for one who, it is said, has a chip on each shoulder) remains the only genuine Old Labour member of the Cabinet.

And much as Blair might want to dump this relic of the past, he realises that the Labour Party – which still possesses a goodly number of real socialists – would be up in arms were that to happen.

So Prescott’s place is assured. There will be entertaining and possibly embarrassing moments during his period of playing at being Prime Minister.

We should cherish these few Blairless days, under the command of an unsophisticated, elegantly-suited political bruiser who has no airs and very few graces and whose speeches, although largely incomprehensible, invariably command a standing ovation. Because he is that very rare animal: a real socialist in high places. end

Chris Moncrieff is senior political analyst at PA News

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