The many faces of Prezza, Baron of ‘ull…..
July 9, 2010

Love him or hate him, it’s always easy to point the finger of fun at Prezza. Yesterday the tag two jags might have been traded in for two faces as the one time working-class warrior of the left did an about turn and signed on for the  exclusive club he had always derided for its “flunkery and titles”.    

But there have always been many faces to Prezza  and that’s what makes him such good copy. 

One thing is certain, this one time eleven plus failure is no fool and knows a consequence of his action will be delighted howls of derision from those who consider him hypocritical and an ill educated, incoherent, ignorant street brawling philanderer with ideas above his station.

He maintains he has taken his place to try to change the Lords from within, and well he might, but I suspect it is nearer to the truth that he is prepared to do it, and take the attendant flak,  for his wife of 49 years, Pauline, the former hairdresser who will now carry the title Baroness.

In essence it’s sack cloth and ashes, rather than ermine that he is donning. It’s pay back time for her loyalty during the humiliating publication of salacious extracts from the memoirs of his former secretary Tracey Temple, with whom he had a two-year affair.  

I recall ‘meeting’ Prezza with his aides (Tracey may well have been present – who knows?) on the Euro star back to London from Brussels. We were in the buffet car and I was travelling with a group of colleagues, following an international education visit to the European Commission and NATO. One of our party introduced herself, explaining we were all headteachers, and asked for his autograph.  He signed it ‘from an eleven plus failure’.

He is now 72 and for 61 years he has seemingly struggled to rise above that disappointment and shake  off the stigma attached to it. In his book, written with Hunter Davies, My Story: Prezza Pulling No Punches, he devotes a whole chapter to his 11-plus failure and the impact it had on his young life:

“….class awareness really set in when I got the results of my 11-plus exam. I’d failed………I didn’t understand it at the time, or realise that 80 percent of us, of the entire nation’s eleven-year-olds, had been branded failures. But I sensed that some sort of social and intellectual division had taken place for reasons unknown to me. Perhaps that was when I got the chip on my shoulder.”     

I also remember a day of high tension when the 11-plus results arrived. Luckily for me I was one of the 20% awarded a grammar school place but I also recall the angst and alienation of class mates consigned to the scrap heap of the local secondary modern. We must never be tempted to turn back the clock to those dark days.         

Whatever you think of Prezza as a person or a politician he deserves credit for clawing himself up from that early set back and his subsequent achievements in public life. His career path is well documented: waiter and steward on Cunard ocean liners, militant member of the seaman’s union, student at Ruskin College Oxford, graduate of Hull University, Labour MP for Hull East, cabinet member and  longest ever serving deputy prime minister.   

Yes we all remember the egg throwing incident and subsequent left hook while campaigning in North Wales, the public soaking at the Brit Awards by Chumbawamba, images of croquet on the lawn at Prescott Towers, two jags and of course claims for mock Tudor beams and 2 toilet seats at his constituency home.     

But behind the bluff exterior, buffoonery and gaffs, that have been a political satirist’s dream, Prezza formed the bridge between old Labour and new and was a moderniser who shaped many of the policies that brought his party back into power. He was the buffer between Blair and Brown and, despite his public image, often a voice of reason in the cabinet. He also worked tirelessly to get the ground-breaking Kyoto agreement.    

What you see has always been what you get with Prezza. He’s passionate but flawed, totally un pc on occasions, and as his autobiography says pulls no punches. He’s been a larger than life politician of a type we are unlikely ever to see again.

Let’s get off his case. He’s earned the right to wear the ermine and stir up the Lords if he wishes, which he probably will!