Charlie Whelan: Prescott croquet snaps take heat off Blair

If ever proof was needed of the power of a photograph, the BBC provided it with a picture of John Prescott playing croquet – a story deemed more important than the Indonesian earthquake

The Mail on Sunday has spent a small fortune digging the dirt on the Deputy Prime Minister, even coughing up £250,000 for the exclusive story of his secret lover. Ironically, the toffs’ game at his grace-and-favour mansion has caused Prezza even more heartache than his affair.

With Tony Blair on holiday and precious little alternative political news, the media couldn’t resist another pop at Two Jags. They have been ably assisted in keeping the story going by any MP who hasn’t jetted off on a freebie for half-term.

But it was Peter Mandelson who put the knife into Prescott’s back this week. He said the deputy PM would act in the best interests of the party – in other words, that he should resign.

I have been waiting for this moment ever since Mandelson and Blair decided to back Prescott for the job of ‘second in command’ despite years of opposing him. This angered Gordon Brown, who backed Margaret Beckett for the post, but Blair and his then sidekick saw Prezza as a ‘useful idiot’.

And very useful he has been, too. The MP for Hull East has provided working-class cred in contrast to a leader who was public-school educated.

Now the Deputy PM is being even more useful as he takes all the flak that should by rights be targeted at his boss.
Alternative headlines could easily have been along the lines of: ‘Blair takes another freebie holiday as our boys die in Iraq.’ Instead, Number 10 has gleefully briefed the media that Prescott insisted on keeping Dorneywood against the PM’s advice.

I know that many Labour MPs feel sorry for Prescott, but as is so often the case, love of the high life has helped bring about his downfall. Why on earth should he have a fully staffed mansion? Brown might feel guilty here – Dorneywood was allocated to Prescott by the Chancellor, who had first dibs on it.

In 1997 I told my mates about the weekends of fun we would have at the estate (I have to confess it was the snooker table rather than the croquet lawn that caught my eye). Brown had other ideas, though. He realised the poor PR that pictures of him at Dorneywood could generate, and decided against using it. ‘In any case, Charlie,’ he told his disappointed spin doctor, ‘if you have never had it, you will never miss it.’

How wise that statement looks now...

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