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Wednesday, May 31, 2006 

Prescott: Time to put the mallet down and return to Hull.

The freelance photographer who just "happened" to be wandering around near Dorneywood last Thursday with his long lens must be the target of a few choice words currently in Downing Street. In the absence of any big political story, parliament having broken up for the half-term break on Thursday, the hacks on the Mail on Sunday brought back the scandal of Prescott, this time complete with a croquet mallet. The damage could only have been worse if Prescott had used the mallet to smack a nearby furry creature.

Well, at least that's one way of looking at the continuing furore surrounding Prescott. Also leaked, almost certainly by Downing Street, but which has perhaps somewhat backfired, was the news that Blair had wanted to remove Prescott's privileges, such as his salary and Dorneywood country home. Prescott, probably convincing the prime minister that if he was to leave the cabinet there'd have to be a Labour deputy leadership election, something which neither Blair or Brown want or need, managed to keep them. It was meant to make Prescott look even worse, but instead it just makes Blair look ever more the lame duck that Steve Bell has been drawing him as.

The parallels between Prescott and Blair don't just stop there. Both were once those who took the most joy from the scandals which rocked the broken and rotten Tory party of the 90s. Prescott made jokes, Blair made political capital. Now Prescott has his own sexual misdeeds and arrogance exposed, while Blair still must be worrying about the knock on the door from Knacker of the Yard, wanting to ask a few questions about loans for peerages. We are also told by no less a man than Prescott's biographer that he won't until Blair himself goes, which while being sensible, as it makes more sense to have two elections at once than two separately, makes you wonder whether Labour really does sense the danger that it's in.

From the beginning of the year, all it has faced has been scandals, some manufactured, some that should and have been fatal, and others that show no signs of going away. We had the panic over paedophile teachers, mainly cooked up in the hysteria which is the tabloid media's way of reporting on it, and Ruth Kelly survived, only to be replaced at the reshuffle because she was useless at selling Blair's trust school reforms. Tessa Jowell lied and lied and lied again about not knowing anything to do with her husband at all, but she survived. At the reshuffle, according to Jonathan Freedland, Blair wanted to move her away from culture, but she objected, and got her way. Another sign of weakness perhaps, but Jowell is such an ardent, loyalist Blairite that perhaps he just gave in because of her service. We've also had loans for peerages, Jack Dromey putting the knife in quite rightly over not being informed, the Home Office panic and complete incompetence over foreign criminals, and there is no sign that these bad news stories for Labour are going to stop coming.

And what do the public see? They see John Reid jetting off only a couple of weeks after becoming Home Secretary, and after bollocking his department and doing little else, to a holiday but quickly returning. They see John Prescott, the supposed class warrior, an ex-man of integrity but who has been so lacking in his succession of roles that all he will be remembered for is punching an egg thrower and not quite managing to shag his secretary, playing an upper class game just hours after taking control of the country from the Dear Leader, seemingly oblivious to any state of alert or problems that his party is facing.

It's the sign that Labour has not only lost its way, but that it's almost giving up governing. The Tories, with Cameron still getting the media love-in, despite continuing shows of his hypocrisy and carrying his shoes and papers behind him in a car while he rides his bike, just can't believe their luck. Labour is trying to get a grip, it must be said; but that grip just involves the same old failures. We're told that they'll be even more choice in the NHS when we need an operation, even though take up of other places for treatment has been incredibly low since it was introduced at the beginning of the year. The government just can't seem to understand that what everyone wants is good care locally, not miles away where they can choose to go. We're told unmarried couples are to get new rights, which is great and all, but doesn't really sound like much of this new agenda, how Labour has to be renewed from the bottom up.

The party badly needs renewal. The end of Prescott and Blair though should only be the first phase. If they had any sense, they would both be gone not by next year's party conference, but by the time of the Manchester conference this year. Most people are still assuming that Brown will get the job, yet increasingly he feels like more of the same, the tired old New Labour man that has never either took his chance or never had a chance. With Cameron as opposition leader, some are increasingly wondering whether there needs to be a similar generation skip from Labour. It's time then for Brown to put his foot down. He needs to tell Blair and Prescott to go this year, and he needs to expand on some of his already declared policies in the contest which has to follow. A lot of hype and bluster about "Britishness" isn't going to cut it. At the moment he seems like more of the same. If the travails of Prescott and Blair are to be quickly forgotten and forgiven, Brown has to do much more. And like Freedland points out at the end of his article, even with all this government's attacks on civil liberties, the war on Iraq, the choice agenda, the Tory measures which are the education "reforms", the NHS deficits and constant reform there, as well as the reliance on PFI projects, Labour will still be better than the Tories, even under Cameron. It may be the lesser of two evils, but it's still at the moment better the devil you know.

Update: and almost the second after I post, Prescott gives up Dorneywood. I don't think it''ll be enough to save him, especially as he keeps his salary.

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