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Prescott punch costs Labour dear

Prescott and protester
Flashpoint: Prescott (right) grapples with a protester  

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Britain’s Labour Party has its Hard Left and Soft Left factions. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has now given his party the Straight Left too.

Prescott is a famously combative and combustible politician. He once said that he was “not a fancy rapier man, more the broadsword type-I like to take the head off.”

The protester who hit him with an egg on Wednesday may therefore have been lucky not to suffer more damage.

Fellow politicians were trying not to be too po-faced about the incident and there was some sympathy with the deputy prime minister’s instinctive action.

Egg-throwing may be a minor tradition in the British political process but it is never much fun to be on the receiving end.

Prescott is one of those parliamentarians who earns some affection outside his own party as a straight-talker and a flesh and blood figure in an age of manufactured cardboard politicians.

Blair defends deputy after fight

The deputy prime minister’s loss of cool, however, has cost his party dear. It took place the same day as Labour’s manifesto launch and ensured that instead of the government’s promises not to raise income taxes for five years and its pledges to boost Britain’s public services the next day’s headlines were dominated by the Prescott punch.

What made the timing even worse for Labour was that the Prescott punch-up occurred the same day that the prime minister was harangued by a woman protesting over poor cancer care and the Home Secretary Jack Straw, responsible for law and order, was booed and slow-handclapped by the Police Federation.

It became the Wobbly Wednesday of this election campaign. Suddenly a government that was coasting in the opinion polls began to look a little fragile.

While both Prescott and his leader Tony Blair have expressed regret that the incident occurred, Blair tried to laugh it off, saying that Prescott had many strengths, “not least in his left arm.”

Opposition leader William Hague advised Mr Prescott to keep his cool in future and joked that it was not his policy to go around hitting electors.

Prescott’s career is on a mildly downward trajectory anyway. Although he will remain as deputy prime minister if Labour is re-elected his huge Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is expected to be re-jigged, with Straw taking the main role and Prescott moving to a Cabinet Office post.

It is unlikely though that Blair would seek to drop Prescott, even if legal action were to follow his fisticuffs. Prescott’s presence in government is a reassurance to trades union leaders and to the party’s Old Left traditionalists that they still have a voice at the top table and that not too much will be conceded to Liberal Democrats or other potential Blair allies.

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