It’s a bad time to be a politician at the moment - and so it should be. We now know why they are so out of touch with the everyday running costs and implications of running a house, let alone a car. They have never been much good at answering questions and, although I’m no Woodward or Bernstein for that matter (ask your parents), I did try once to find out just how they justified what they drove.
In May 1997 I wasn’t exactly humming ‘Things can only get better’ along with Tony, Cherie, Gordon, John and Mandy. That’s because it didn’t take long for New Labour in general, and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in particular, to suggest that not only was one car bad, but two would virtually become a criminal offence. They had declared war on second car families by promising to make public transport so good that we would abandon our cars.
It seemed reasonable to ask in a national newspaper just how those responsible for these policies managed to get around when not enjoying free first class rail travel or being comfortably chauffeured about in the back of a ministerial Rover. What cars were we the taxpayers subsidising at 48.4 pence per mile?
‘What Labour Drive’ was published in September ’97 in The Independent, who were at the time very much on message when it came to New Labour. “I’ve had John Prescott’s office on the phone,” said the bloke at the Indie. “and Prescott isn’t happy.” Job done then, I thought, but the timid voice went on. “They want to speak to you so I’m going to give them your number.”
I re-read what I’d said about the Deputy PM: ‘At the lair of Deputy PM John Prescott, The Department of Environment, they promised to call back, but never did. That didn’t matter because Mr Prescott is Parliament’s most famous Jaguar driver. When asked by a Conservative MP how a Socialist could drive such a quintessential Home Counties and Tory motor, he simply replied, “I turn the key.” Now Mr. Prescott doesn’t even have to do that, there’s a government driver to steer his much newer Jag and also a Golf parked on his large driveway. So much then for the one car family.’
That seemed harmless enough – but then the phone rang again. “I have the deputy Prime Minister for you,” said a civil servant. Next was the grammatically and syntaxally challenged DPM.
“What business is it of yours what car I drive? That car belongs to a member of my family.” I argued that New Labour were attacking the two car family and wasn’t it a little hypocritical for him to have three at the last count. Couldn’t he set an example to the rest of us? Apparently not. For five minutes it was the ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’ school of politics. The brief conversation didn’t change my mind and Prescott only seemed pleased that he’d let off some steam. I understand he got a taste for calling off-message hacks and berating them. Here was proof that the bloke who was a heartbeat away from number 10 had nothing better to do with his time.
For my part I printed no retraction, no apology and no surrender. Prescott continued to Jag about and New Labour has turned motoring into a fantastically expensive and even more necessary evil. So much for the power of the press.
As a matter of interest, here’s what they drove in 1997. There’s nothing made in the UK, and do read the final comment by an opposition spokesman from 12 years ago.
Tony Blair had a Ford Galaxy.
Roads minister Baroness Hayman piloted a Honda Shuttle.
Glenda Jackson, rail minister and responsible for transport matters in London had a safe and sound Volvo 440.
Leader of the House Ann Taylor had a purple Volvo estate.
Robin Cook had an old Ford Sierra back up in his Scottish constituency.
Agriculture minister Jack Cunningham shared a very old Ford Mondeo with his wife.
Welsh minister Ron Davies drove a Ford Granada.
At Overseas Development Claire Short was reported to drive a Lada estate when not on duty.
The Department of Education’s David Blunkett didn’t drive, obviously, and nor did the Treasury’s Gordon Brown.
President of the Board of Trade Margret Beckett’s office just gave a long lecture about ministerial security, and refused to answer the question.
Equally snooty were the Health, Social Security and Ministries of Culture, who all refused point blank to indulge me.
I thought that the Conservative Party might be able to help me if they had a black book full of millionaire socialist Ferrari owners, but they didn’t. Instead I spoke to their front bench spokesman Christopher Chope. Tellingly, he said: “Well, it is very easy for politicians to say one thing, then do another, because they are protected from any road cost increases with their allowances.”