'Bruiser' with a mission to put Labour in power

John Prescott views his first year in partnership with Tony Blair a 'clear success'. He tells Colin Brown his agenda for year two and beyond
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The Independent Online
Relaxing in his office overlooking the river Thames, John Prescott clearly had a eye on the Whitehall empire dubbed 10A Downing Street, occupied by Michael Heseltine.

In October he will face Mr Heseltine for the first Commons questions to the Deputy Prime Minister. "I think what has happened with Heseltine is very interesting ... What will be very interesting to see as this develops is the role of the Treasury. Will Mr Heseltine be given Treasury papers?"

That thought might leave Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, with a few sleepless nights. Tony Blair also has his doubts.

Mr Prescott accepts that many in the party see the leader and deputy leader as a "head and heart" relationship - Blair as the head, him as the heart. A year on from the leadership election, Mr Prescott is disarmingly modest about finding himself at the helm with Mr Blair.

The way that their personal relationship has "clearly worked" is seen by Mr Prescott as one of the main achievements of the past 12 months, and he told the Independent that the attempt by John Major to recreate it with Mr Heseltine was a compliment to the Labour leader and his deputy.

Mr Prescott said the Heseltine-Major role depended on co-operation. "If you take over and start telling your colleagues that is what I am going to do, then the job turns out be bad news.

"The difference between ourselves and Heseltine and Major is that theirs comes out of a political necessity to work together, whereas we came together out of the political will of nearly one million people voting in a ballot.

"There is only one leader or one Prime Minister. That may be a problem for Heseltine, who clearly sees himself as Prime Minister. I don't think there is any doubt that two people can play a part in delivering a programme. That depends on the personalities as much as anything else. I think Tony and I are complimentary." A lot of people thought that it was just a ruse when he staked his leadership campaign to the need for reorganisation of the party. "They didn't think I really meant it," he smiled.

Looking back on the past 12 months, he is confident people now realise he was deadly serious. "We had financial problems. They have been overturned by major organisational changes. We have got over 100,000 new members. The target I set at the last party conference for 350,000 members has been met. We have to sustain that," he said.

Many saw him as Tony Blair's fireman, ready to damp down trouble with the unions. "There is a nervousness about the trade unions but I am not running round with the fire hose," he said.

The deputy leader does not expect trade unions to object to ending their sponsorship of MPs in response to the Nolan Committee report. "We bitterly resent the implication that if you are paid by a private consultancy, that is in any way comparable with sponsoring a Member of Parliament who doesn't receive a penny of the money. Labour MPs don't pocket the money. I came in as a shipping MP committed to changing shipping legislation. It is a vested interest. It is one that is open. But I came from Hull. It benefits my constituents. What is going to happen is that there will be change so that trade unions can make donations to the constituency parties if they wish to do so. It is not sponsorship of MPs. I don't really envisage any squalls about that."

Mr Prescott will tell the October party conference that the next phase will be a campaign to tap the enthusiasm of the new members. "We have to deal with a new political education programme ... Thousands have come into the Labour Party for politics. It is quite a shock to some people that most of them have come to discuss things. At Reading, when we had a policy review, 600 people turned up and we turned down as many delegates again. Something like half were new members. These are people turning up with enthusiasm. They feel something is happening with Labour. They feel that Labour has got a good chance of winning. We want to turn them into campaigning members, encouraging more people to join.

"There are those who are saying they won't be there after the election. But we want a party that involves these new members. They are important and we want to maintain that enthusiasm."

He has set next year, "year two" in the Prescott agenda, as the time for concentrating on "getting our message across. I don't think we are going to make the same mistake that the Labour Party has made before, that you wait until three weeks before the election and then try to get your message across.

"We will be stepping up campaigning and organising even more in the coming year. We have entered into the summer campaign to sustain the momentum. It is a massive campaign with 150 meetings, and 120 MPs involved."

Mr Prescott is riled by the likes of Ken Livingstone, the Labour MP, criticising the tone of Labour's campaign for the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election. But his real contempt is reserved for the New Statesman, which advocated a tactical vote for the Liberal Democrats and attacked the dirty tricks as gutter politics.

"Coming from a magazine that relaunched with a report about a so-called affair between the Prime Minister and a woman, if there is anyone grubbing in the gutter it is not the Labour Party," he said.

Mr Prescott is unembarrassed by his image as an unreconstructed bruiser, but rejects criticism that he is providing the left-wing cover with the traditionalists in the party for Labour to swing to the right. "I have never had a lot of time for right-wing or left-wing labels. It is common knowledge that I was not happy about changing Clause IV. But I am quite happy on the wording now. Clause IV still emphasises public ownership."

Despite defending left-wing tradition on public ownership, he was the first to promote the right-wing idea of injecting private sector finance into British Rail. The former transport spokesman will shortly report to Mr Blair on policy plans for dealing with the privatisation of BR. He is guarded about the results, but it will not amount to full-scale renationalisation of Railtrack, if it is sold off. "My view has always been they can't do too much about privatisation. They will pick one or two lines and say 'We will do those'."