Leading article: Stop giving your deputy such a rough ride, Mr Blair

SUFFICIENTLY TORMENTED, even the gentlest of animals is liable to bite. And John Prescott has been sorely baited by the Prime Minister and his acolytes in recent months. Backbenchers from his own party mocked his performance in Prime Minister's Questions. Mr Prescott, even though he is Deputy Prime Minister, has been kept away from the political nerve- centre. He was out of the country for the Budget, and excluded from the Kosovo war Cabinet. He has been denied the essential funds and parliamentary time to push through the transport reforms dear to him, upon which he has worked so hard. The "faceless wonders" of Downing Street, worried by public concern at the state of the roads and railways, have been briefing against him. Then, to cap it all, the Prime Minister himself turned on Mr Prescott's constituency of public sector workers, condemning them as outdated and unwilling to change. In these circumstances, it is entirely understandable that the usually stoically loyal Mr Prescott has broken the on-message boundaries of Blairite political management and rushed to defend the public sector and condemn the tactics at No 10.

It is this frankness that makes Mr Prescott a refreshing reminder of a previous political age. And this is not just the age of Old Labour. Contrary to popular opinion, Mr Prescott is not blindly rooted to outdated ideologies. Instead, he is an imaginative politician who was working on public-private partnerships long before the Tories took hold of the idea. Mr Prescott's approach is reminiscent of an age of open political debate, when politicians stood up for what they believed in and tried to do something about it. Demographics, under-investment and poor management have pushed public transport to the forefront of voters' minds, alongside health and education. But Mr Prescott took on this tricky problem because he believed in it - though combining it with the environment and the regions was a mistake. Against today's backdrop of carefully calculated, voter-friendly, but empty soundbites, this old political landscape of belief, debate and action seems to have been relegated to the distant horizon. Mr Prescott reassures us that it is, at least, still in sight.

For this reason, among others, Tony Blair may have been unwise to let Mr Prescott have such a rough ride. Rewarding loyalty and honesty with what amounts to political ridicule will leave a bad taste in the mouths of even the middle classes whom Mr Blair is so anxious to woo at Mr Prescott's expense. Although the attitudes entrenched in the public sector may need modernisation, there was no need for the Prime Minister to take such a blunderbuss approach and offend five million people. In the wake of the European election results, this could be a grave error. Mr Blair, now more than ever, needs Mr Prescott, who can touch parts of the Labour Party that the Prime Minister cannot reach. Frustrating your deputy at every turn is bad court politics. Mr Blair needs to do more than just keep his rivals close - he needs to keep them happy, too.

But then, Tony Blair knows that John Prescott is, ultimately, loyal. In fact, Mr Prescott is possibly too loyal for his own good. He may be a simmering volcano that needs to let off steam from time to time, but he will not erupt. And so Mr Blair thinks that he does not need the constant care given to, say, Gordon Brown. Were the Chancellor to be mocked, his plans and projects stopped in their tracks, he might make a play for the crown. Mr Prescott, on the other hand, can be calmed with a cup of tea and a reassuring chat.

Mr Prescott's supporters, however, may not be so easily placated as they watch the man who stands up for the principles for which they fought so hard rebuffed and demeaned. And they can bite, too.