John Prescott has been stripped of his departmental responsibilities, but he keeps his Cabinet place (and the accompanying salary), as well as various perks (such as two Grace & Favour houses). Given the allegations that emerged over the weekend about his behaviour towards a female subordinate, this is astonishing.
What’s even more astonishing is the way the media have swallowed the government line that his sexual misdemeanours are a private matter. If he were the CEO of a public company, then his sexual harassment of a subordinate would already have led to his departure — if only because a juicy lawsuit would be imminent. But he continues as the UK’s Deputy PM. All of which makes Catherine Bennett’s icy column worth reading. Sample:
Miraculous to relate, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and a host of columnists appear, for once, to agree on something. John Prescott’s use of a secretary for sexual purposes was “a private matter”.
If, as seems likely, this view prevails, when Blair next takes a holiday this country will be led by a man we have long known to be a violent, inarticulate oaf and now know to be a violent, inarticulate, sexually predatory oaf. At least no one could call us elitist.
How will it be for the women secretaries, civil servants and political colleagues who must continue to work alongside him? Fine, perhaps, when they remember the prime minister’s assurance that this is a private matter. Simply because Prescott assigned his secretary various challenging sexual tasks, and is alleged to have attempted the molestation of at least one other woman, that is no reason to suppose he will lift up the skirt of Tessa Jowell, or look down the front of Margaret Hodge, or harass other senior women who do not appeal to him, or talk dirty to them at staff parties, or turn his assessing gaze on their cleavage, speculating on the kind of underwear that might be supporting it. That is something he only does to his juniors. In private…
Luminaries of New Labour, that most enlightened hammer of sexual and all other forms of discrimination, are defending a man whose lewd approaches to a junior colleague – it will be obvious to almost any other employer or employee in the land – should make him a candidate for immediate suspension. Not to mention an enormous compensation claim on the part of his secretary. A private matter? In a lap-dancing club, perhaps. But this was the civil service. Aside from the choice of locations, a sexual connection this rudimentary, bereft of any romantic trimmings, so closely resembles unpaid prostitution that, given Prescott’s public position, the abuse of power more than justifies the public interest. At what point, during this administration, was the propositioning, at work, of subordinates, redefined as an irrelevant and entirely personal peccadillo?