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Sunday 30 April 2006

Trio of clowns means Blair looks shagged

IT'S been blindingly obvious for years that John Prescott, the arrogant, thick and incoherent British deputy prime minister, should be chucked out of his job for sheer incompetence. However, he may lose it for being ridiculous. Prescott's love of cars earned him the nickname 'Two Jags'. His love of sex has caused the Sun to amend that to 'Two Shags'.

The British nation is united in laughter at a succession of photographs of Prescott's courtship of his diary secretary, Tracey Temple, at a couple of office Christmas parties. We enjoyed the image of the couple smooching, Prescott's eyes closed in alcoholic and amorous bliss, and even more the sight of the two of them crashing to the floor as they executed an unsuccessful twirl. Who could fail to appreciate the giggling Tracey unbuttoning her boss's shirt to reveal to his staff more of his ample belly, or the moment when Prezza got in touch with his inner gorilla and whirled Tracey around his shoulders?

Well, since you ask, probably Tony Blair. Blair has needed Prescott as his conduit to the Labour Party, which loathes its leader as heartily as its leader loathes it. Prescott - who clawed his way up from merchant seaman through the trade union and then the Labour movements - seems to the rank-and-file to embody Old Labour. If John says Tony's OK, then Tony can be tolerated.

Yet though Prescott can still do a mean impersonation of the Old Labour common man (notoriously by punching an egg-thrower on the campaign trail), he has developed many of the worst characteristics of New Labour - greed, self-righteousness and authoritarianism. He revels in his two grand residences provided by the taxpayer, in both of which he entertained Tracey, and as a minister - despite his lack of any administrative ability or intellectual grasp of his responsibilities - he blunders on, taking appalling decisions and wasting billions. He is at present engaged in trying to impose unwanted regional bureaucracy on already overgoverned England, and in ordering the destruction of tens of thousands of sturdy houses in the North while threatening to concrete over much of the green belt in the South. So much for Prescott, who caused Blair so much embarrassment on Wednesday.

So too did Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary. Prissy, patronising and hectoring, Ms Hewitt is classic New Labour Woman. She presides over a national health service that wastes more money than Prescott. The NHS is appallingly badly managed and will survive only with intelligent decentralisation. Instead, it has had years of stupid and ineffectual meddling following by injections of huge sums of money so badly directed that doctors' pay has doubled in a year. Not until the money had gone did Blair decide the time had come for reforms and some budgetary stringency, so Ms Hewitt is suddenly presiding over job losses. The combination of a sudden drying-up of nursing posts, Ms Hewitt's stupid insistence that the NHS was having its best year ever and her incredibly irritating manner and tone led nurses to jeer and shout her down at their conference last week.

WHEN Blair could tear himself away from the pages on Prescott's and Hewitt's humiliation, there were those devoted to excoriating the home secretary. Poor Charles Clarke obediently tries to put into effect his master's madder ideas, like the identity card scheme that is likely to cost around £50bn and be of no use whatsoever. He presides over the nightmare that is the Home Office, a department notoriously staffed by the kind of people who prefer perpetrators to victims and think common sense is valued only by the stupid. It was no surprise that they appeared uninterested when told months ago that prisons were releasing into the community more than a thousand foreign criminals who had been recommended for deportation. Nothing was done.

When this hit the press, clearly clueless, Clarke explained that things were in such a mess it was clearly his job to stay on and sort it out. The police are now frenziedly trying to find the missing villains, most of whom have prudently disappeared. (It probably doesn't matter. Lawyers are indicating that because of the human rights legislation introduced by New Labour, it would probably be impossible to deport anyone anyway.)

The Daily Telegraph caught the spirit of what has become known as Black Wednesday brilliantly with photographs of Prescott, Hewitt and Clarke over the headline "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered". No matter, says Blair. Bewitched "is absolutely vital to the Labour Party and the government" and Bothered and Bewildered are "trying todo the right thing for the country".

There are strong rumours that Bewitched has had other affairs, Bothered faces a commons committee inquiry into NHS finances and Bewildered has just had to admit huge rises in crime rates. The question is how Black will be next Friday when the local election results are declared.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards