Time to change the top of New Labour

As one of East Anglia's leading Labour MPs calls for John Prescott to quit, Political Editor Graham Dines considers the impact on the stability of both party and government.

As one of East Anglia's leading Labour MPs calls for John Prescott to quit, Political Editor Graham Dines considers the impact on the stability of both party and government.

AS Tony Blair and his family lap up the Italian sunshine this week, John Prescott is officially in charge of running the country. He may not have the codes for our nuclear bombs, but he is responsible for virtually every other scenario which the country may face including co-ordinating the Government responses to any civil emergency.

In other words, he's in charge of crisis management. But with every day that passes, a new crisis is engulfing the man who many Labour MPs believes is dragging the party more and more into disrepute.

Since taking office in 1997, Mr Prescott has been the butt of jokes from right wing columnists - they believe this fast talking working class champion of the people who seems to suffer from verbal dyslexia is unfit to carry the title Deputy Prime Minister.

His critics increased in number when he was involved in a celebrated punch up before the cameras with a voter in North Wales in 2001. But Tony Blair stuck by him with the celebrated one-liner: “It's just John being John.”

Then earlier this year, details emerged on an affair he had had with one of his diary secretaries Tracey Temple - this was the same John Prescott who during the final months of John Major's government taunted the Tories for sleazy and improper sexual conduct.

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It's more than likely that any other person would have been sacked when the affair became public, just days before May's local elections in which Labour took a beating at the hands of the electorate.

But while he was stripped of departmental responsibilities - the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was renamed the Department of Communities and Local Government - Mr Prescott was allowed to keep the title of Deputy Prime Minister with full £133,000 pay plus use of a grace and favour apartment in London's Admiralty Arch and the run of Dorneywood, the country estate complete with croquet lawn where he was photographed last week enjoying an “away day” with his staff. He receives this package in return for chairing a few Cabinet committees co-ordinating Government policy.

Yesterday, under pressure from the Conservatives, the 1,000-page handbook on staff conduct at Mr Prescott's former department was released, which suggests Mr Prescott's affair with civil servant Ms Temple was in breach of rules which state: “You must not make inappropriate use of official time, information and resources of the Office.”

Unease in the Labour Party is mounting. Norwich North MP Dr Ian Gibson says Mr Prescott has become a figure of fun. “What matters to the person in the street is what he is doing, what is his job. He has all the fringe benefits and so on but yet it's not clear what his position is.

“People do laugh about him because of his goings-on in the last few months or so.”

Ealing North MP Stephen Pound said he was encountering questions from constituents about Mr Prescott's position and suggested that the Deputy Prime Minister did not have long left in his post. “Everybody now recognises that the sell-by date is rapidly approaching ­- it's very difficult to say why somebody should get 130 grand a year for playing croquet.”

Calder Valley MP Christine McCafferty demanded Mr Prescott's resignation to allow Labour to “re-engage” with women voters furious that he had apparently been “rewarded” after admitting the affair. “I think he ought to now resign.”

Cabinet minister have rallied round the beleaguered Prescott. Defence Secretary Des Browne insisted that the Deputy Prime Minister was “very valued” adding: “He's given a lifetime of service to the party. Without his contribution, among others, we wouldn't have had three terms of Government. That's why he's the elected deputy leader.”

Tony Blair needs to hang on to Mr Prescott. His removal could bring the Prime Minister huge problems at a time when he is under mounting pressure to name the date when he will stand down himself.

John Prescott is the elected deputy leader of the Labour Party. If he quits or is sacked from his Government post, it will be virtually impossible for him to retain his party position.

That would mean a bruising election involving MPs, trade unions, and Labour members. It would open a gaping wound between the Blairite and Brownite wings of the party, with the Prime Minister duty bound to give whoever is elected a top job in Government.

Mr Blair wants his deputy to remain until it's time for him to leave Downing Street, so that the new leader and deputy leader are elected at the same time.

Just as important is that John Prescott knows where the bodies are buried. He has brokered the uneasy truce between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown - his sudden removal could cause all sorts of party fratricide.

With the Conservatives looking at long last a credible alternative to Labour, it's not just John Prescott who is in crisis. If New Labour is to survive, it needs reinvigorating sooner rather than later - and that means starting with the very top of the party.

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