This is from a Mary Ann Sieghart column in The Times. I think it is fair to say that John Prescott got more than he bargained for.
It's not every day that the Deputy Prime Minister announces himself to you as a buffoon. This was just weeks after the 7/7 terrorist attacks and John Prescott was - supposedly - running the country while Tony Blair was away. I had written a column headlined “Prezza the buffoon should simply not be left in charge”, which asked why we indulged him when he was so blisteringly incompetent.
The next day, my phone rang. “I have the Deputy Prime Minister for you,” said a female voice. “It's your buffoon here,” came a more familiar male one. He harangued me for half an hour, saying that what I'd written was “bloody disgraceful” and that I was just a snob. “I'm crap at syntax,” he conceded finally. “I don't even know what the word means.” Then he demanded that I come in and see him.
That turned into the encounter that Prescott referred to on Tuesday in his Radio 4 On the Ropes interview with John Humphrys. I haven't written about it before, because I respected Prescott's right to talk to me off the record. Now that he has brought it up himself, though, I can at last tell the tale.
Signing in at Admiralty House, I heard a click-clack on the marble floor behind me. It was Prescott. I turned round to greet him, but he sailed past, saying gruffly to the security man, “She's with me”. At the lift I caught up with him, smiled and put out my hand, as you do. He scowled and refused to shake it.
He took me up to his vast office and let me stew there for 15 minutes until he came back with a couple of lackeys and a briefing file on me an inch thick. I knew his people had been asking questions about me. In a voluntary capacity, I was then vice-chair of a local regeneration programme, North Fulham NDC, which came under his department. A very senior official had e-mailed the programme director asking how committed I was, what decisions I had taken, which projects I had opposed. Prescott was clearly looking for ammo.
He launched into a tirade. His face reddened, his finger jabbed, he held up dog-eared pamphlets that he had written in the 1980s which apparently proved that he had a good brain. He boasted about his achievements in transport and local government, some of which I disputed. Once he began on regeneration, I asked whether he had managed to dig any dirt up about me on the NDC. “I don't know what you're talking about,” he blustered.
“I think you do,” I retorted. “Your officials have been asking questions about me and you've got a chapter heading there on your briefing pack: ‘Mary Ann Sieghart's involvement with North Fulham NDC'.”
Luckily it was close enough for me to read upside down. Caught red-handed, he pretended not to be able to find the right page. More bragging followed, until he demanded: “So admit it. You were wrong about me.” Given his emotional state, I thought it wise to be diplomatic. I said I was glad to have had the chance to hear his side of the story. “Why don't we leave it at that?” I suggested.
“No,” he said. “I want you to admit that you're wrong.” He was determined to bully me, and I was determined to resist.
“I'm not prepared to,” I replied. “I'm afraid you haven't persuaded me.”
“Right then,” he shouted. “I want you to justify every single word you wrote.”
“Are you quite sure?” I checked. This was going to be embarrassing. So I took a deep breath and began. “Well, you punched a voter and you stuck two fingers up in Downing Street. That shows that you lose your rag too easily - as evidenced today, in fact.”
“AS EVIDENCED TODAY?” he bellowed, his face by now beetroot, his fists clenched.
“Yes, I've been talking perfectly calmly while you've been shouting and jabbing your finger at me. I don't think that's appropriate behaviour in a Deputy Prime Minister.”
My column had gone on to disparage his performance at Prime Minister's Questions. “I know PMQs are very hard,” I admitted. “I'd be useless at them. But then I'm not Deputy Prime Minister and you are.”
The final straw was his inability to string a sentence together. “I've not had the fine education you had,” was his justification. “You're just a snob.”
“I'm not,” I retorted. “I have no problem with Alan Johnson or John Reid or David Blunkett. They all come from disadvantaged backgrounds, they didn't go to private schools and they still manage to articulate what they want to say. It's nothing to do with snobbery and nothing to do with your education.” If a man couldn't speak clearly, I said, it was a sign that he couldn't think clearly either.
That was when he finally lost it. “So what you're saying is I'm too thick to be Deputy Prime Minister?” he yelled at me.
His two apparatchiks stiffened. “Well, yes, I guess I am,” I said in a small voice.
On the pavement outside, I found myself shaking. I couldn't believe what I had just said to Prescott, but nor could I believe how bullyingly he had behaved.
He, meanwhile, raced off to No 10 to see Blair. I later heard that he said, “I've just had that Mary Ann Sieghart in”, to which Blair replied, “That's nice”. “No it wasn't,” said Prescott, still furious. “She told me I was too thick to be Deputy Prime Minister.” Blair did the worst possible thing and laughed. “Well, she's not the only one who thinks that,” he chuckled.
Oh well, at least he didn't hit her. Or try to [that's enough - ed]