Laura May  /  Sipa Press file
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott campaigning in the British elections and holding up the Labor Party election manifesto at The Gate arts centre in Cardiff on Tuesday.
By London bureau chief
NBC News
updated 4/22/2005 8:16:59 AM ET 2005-04-22T12:16:59

It is, perhaps, a reflection of the dullness of the current two-week old British election campaign that I am forced to go back to the last one to remember a lively moment.

It was during the campaign of 2001 that the policies and person of the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott were greeted with a raw egg thrown by a disgruntled voter.

The egg splattered the Deputy Prime Minister and, in consequence, the Deputy Prime Minister splattered the protester with a devastating left hook, right in front of the cameras.

Not what you usually expect from those who hold high office in this land.

That’s the fun of elections for you. But not this one.

At least one lively presence
Mr. Prescott — who stands in for Prime Minister Tony Blair when he’s away — is not your stereotypical manicured politician.

He’s the son of a railwayman who earned his own living as a ship’s steward. He’s a staunch trade unionist and a heavyweight political pugilist.

He also does for the English language what President Bush has done for American English: he mangles it. 

Prescott is famous for talking faster than his tonsils and his brain can handle. He also has strong opinions that he’s not too shy to voice.

Not for nothing is he affectionately known — after a river that runs through his constituency — as the “Mouth of the Humber.”

I remember thinking at the time of Mr. Prescott’s egg flip that it seemed a refreshingly honest and rare moment.

These days, political campaigns seem at times to be little more than cynically manipulative periods where the real and important issues are buried in a mountain of pre-packaged political sound-bites and, occasionally, outright porkies.*

In robust form once again
So it is good to see Prescott out on the campaign stomp again this week — and still in robust good form.

Take this angry exchange Wednesday with a reporter who appeared to be annoying him with his line of questioning during a visit to Wales:

Deputy Prime Minister to reporter: “You’re an amateur mate. Get on your bus — go home.”

Reporter: “Are you too big for the regional press now John?”

Deputy Prime Minister: “Bugger off. Get on your bus, you amateur.”

Not exactly the most elegant speechifying to come from a member of the Mother of Parliaments, but effective nonetheless. And somewhat more direct than other leading politicians fighting the battle for who gets to govern our country.

Not for them bruising encounters with journalists or getting down and dirty with citizens on the street. No soapboxes and megaphones on street corners, as former Prime Minister John Major liked to do.

* "Porkies" is Cockney Rhyming Slang. "Pork pies" = "lies."

Staged to avoid awkward moments
It seems that the major players in this election are, as often as not, sidestepping the media and seeking to engage with the public on their own terms — and only then in carefully managed moments.

They take helicopters around the country with a handful of chosen journalists in tow.

They organize "media events" that are little more than photo opportunities. Some TV companies complain they don’t even find out about them until they are under way.

Foreign broadcasters don’t get a look-in. (They were once described to me by an official at 10 Downing Street as “no vote TV.”)

Even the great British voter is kept largely at arms length, lest they ask the one embarrassing question for which no candidate or leader is ever quite prepared.

It happened famously to Margaret Thatcher in the 1983 election. She was floored on TV by an ordinary citizen, a plain-talking geography teacher who grilled the PM fearlessly about her controversial order to torpedo an Argentinean warship during the Falklands war.

Politicians have learned much since.

The old campaign buses have largely gone. Free access by the media is a thing of the past.

The politicians make no apologies for this. They say they want to communicate with the public directly – and going through Britain’s largely adversarial press corps may not be their best route.

“If you want to communicate policy,” says Labour party advisor Tim Allan, doing it through political journalists is not necessarily the most effective way.”

Of course, they are right. Up to a point. But the point of elections surely is to scrutinize what’s being offered so that people know what they’re letting themselves in for.

Politicians, I venture to suggest, should be held to account before they go do their mischief, claiming that we gave them a mandate.

So now that the politicians are going about it in their own sweet way, what are we left with?

Hardly firing up the body politic
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, a boring election campaign that, far from setting the nation’s voters on fire, has them falling asleep in their armchairs.

Far be it from me to say it serves politicians and their image-makers right.  But it serves them right.

The newspapers have been struggling to keep the election on their front pages. The TV stations are troubled that the election is turning out to be a turn-off. And the parties are worrying that the voters won’t bother to vote on May 5.

Opinion polls appear to show that Blair’s Labour Party is consistently in the lead. Despite the lingering opposition to the war in Iraq, this has not — so far — turned into a referendum on Blair’s leadership, though it may yet do so. It's issues like health and immigration — more than the war — that seem to be influencing voters.

The main challenger — the Conservative Party led by Michael Howard — is struggling to make ground. With two weeks to go, officials need to pull a sizable rabbit out of their hat.

Meantime, Prescott continues to battle away for Labour like the old class warrior that he is. He likes to mock his “plummy” Tory opponents, whose campaign slogan has turned out to be something of a hostage to fortune.

It asks puzzled voters: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”

Prescott has no doubts. “No. I’m definitely not. I find most of it quite offensive,” he told the crowds in Wales.

As for those who make fun of his clumsy but forthright way with words he says: “A lot of them are arrogant snobs who went to (private) schools. They say, ‘Ooh you got your grammar wrong’…so bloody what?”

So bloody what indeed. The election may well be boring. But the Deputy prime Minister?  Never.

Chris Hampson is the NBC News' London Bureau Chief.


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