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An epidemic of ‘emotional bulimia’

Now even gruff John Prescott has joined the ranks of public figures who vomit up their private woes in the press.

Emily Hill

Topics Politics UK

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Last month, the former chief of the CBI and current UK Trade Minister, Lord Digby Jones, got up in front of some baffled Middle Eastern entrepreneurs at an after-lunch speech and announced that he was ‘half a bulimic – I eat a lot but I don’t throw up’. Most people treated this as a not-very-funny joke. Actually, the permanently off-message Trade Minister, brought in under Gordon Brown’s Government of All the Talents initiative, was only demonstrating that he had at last grasped a crucial element of the New Labour project: ‘You don’t have to have a psychological disorder to work here – but it helps.’

Now former deputy PM John Prescott, always a little slow to clamber on board – but, once there, honour-bound as honest John to plug in the mic and belt out a few numbers – has set sail on the New Labour ‘Feel My Pain’ showboat. Realising that all the big New Labour biographies – David Blunkett, Alastair Campbell – spawned serialisation stories suggesting that their time in government was little more than an excuse to battle against their personal demons, (see Politics as therapy by Emily Hill), Prezza duly came up with the goods. No, not his battle against all that lady-loving (we’ll have no grinning pictures of him mauling Tracey Temple here), but his battle against being a three-quarter bulimic. That is, he ate a lot and he did throw up – but no one noticed because he didn’t get thin.

Once upon a time, bulimia was a disorder associated with sensitive young ladies who looked very nice in swimwear – Jane Fonda, Princess Di, countless supermodels, a myriad of body-conscious teenage girls. In a snippet from his biography, Pulling No Punches (And Sticking My Fingers Down My Throat) (okay, I made up the last bit), Prescott revealed exclusively in The Sunday Times that he used to eat a lot because he was under stress and then he vomited afterwards. Recognising that he had a problem with the help of his loyal wife Pauline (who had been following the Princess Di saga in the women’s monthlies), Prescott was persuaded to get professional help: ‘I turned up and found [the consultant’s] waiting room full of young women. I was the only man there. I felt a right twerp. Luckily none of them shopped me to the press.’

Lucky indeed, because how else would he have got headlines from his biography a decade later? And as this is the first revelation from his biography, it must also be the best. In what other age did politicians out themselves with such gusto? Time was Jeremy Thorpe would hire a contract killer to kill his former gay lover, get a dog shot by accident, and then lie about it to save his reputation. Nowadays he would resign tout de suite and cash in. And it’s not just Prescott riding the crest of the confessional wave of the naughty noughties. Graham Greene had to die before his 40-year career of prostitute-frequenting came to life. VS Naipaul practically boasts about his sado-masochistic cash-tastic career of sexual exploits in the new authorised story of his life by Patrick French. It used to be about the work written; it used to be about the political decisions made. Now it’s about the big confession: ‘How could a big man like me have a girl’s illness?’

Only it’s not so big in Prescott’s case, if you actually get past the splash and read the print. At no point does Prescott pin down his condition to his political life, beyond a vague claim that politics was all very stressful and so he ate food to cope. While former home secretary David Blunkett claims in his tell-all life story that he once ordered the prison service to send in the army to ‘machine gun’ rioting inmates at Lincoln Prison while he was in the grip of depression, Prescott doesn’t actually pin instances of his disorder to any particular political moments. For celebrated bulimic Di it was apparently the pressure of the wedding to Charles that pushed her towards an eating disorder; for Fonda it was being married to that horrible Vadim character. But for Prezza, it apparently came about as part of a generalised stress. In fact, it rather makes you wonder if the history books ought to be revised, and whether all the passages about Ancient Romans being greedy types who ate as much as they liked and then vomited it up in order to eat more should be updated with extensive footnotes giving fulsome explanation of their pathology. Rome: Not Built in a Day – Built on Bulimia. Do Not Try This At Home, kids.

That even the most northern, gruff member of the Labour Party – the Old Labour man stuck in the New Labour machine – feels the need to reveal himself so nakedly in public shows how far today’s culture of sickness has gone. Today, it seems every public figure, in order to ‘connect’ with the people and get some media sympathy, must have struggled with bullying, self-harm, depression or an eating disorder. The real epidemic today is emotional bulimia; it’s everywhere, with the rich, the famous and the political vomiting up their private woes in public.

Reportedly, bulimia wasn’t even the greatest of Prescott’s problems. He may not have lost any weight or suffered any kidney damage, but all the vomit acid made him look a bit jowly in photos. He suffered sleep apnoea (heavy snoring). He also had allergies. Probably: ‘I discovered that when I was eating a lot of digestive biscuits I was more bad-tempered than normal. They gave me tests in case I had any flour allergies. It looked as if I might, but the tests proved nothing. But cutting down on digestives seemed to help.’

Prescott claims to have been free of bulimia for a year now – but he seems to have substituted gorging on and spewing up food for gorging on and spewing up himself. He is doing it under the guise of admitting he has a problem, so other sufferers will admit that they have the condition, too, and get help. But this is just an excuse. What teenage girl is going to read Prescott’s biography, or look at him and see herself? In the grand scheme of psychological compulsions, digestive biscuits may be Prescott’s heroin, but all this bingeing on headlines and vomiting up print looks like a methadone substitute to me.

Emily Hill is a reporter on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard. Visit her personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Emily Hill wondered what was the point of John Prescott’s deputy leadership position. Frank Furedi analysed the the seven personality disorders. Malcolm Evans looked at how eating disorders have become a badge of pride. Ray Crowley urged people to wake up and smell the lettuce: there’s nothing wrong with dieting. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK

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