Embattled Prescott: I'm Superman

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LESS THAN a day after he had likened himself to a fox pursued by hounds, John Prescott last night declared: "I'm superman", as he denied his "super-ministry" was too big for one man.

Drivers stuck in traffic may not have found the Deputy Prime Minister's off-the-cuff joke so amusing, but it was the clearest signal so far he has won his battle with Downing Street, which wanted to break up his vast empire.

Whitehall sources denied that Mr Prescott's battle to retain his department intact had delayed the announcement of the reshuffle, but Tony Blair's top advisers urged the Prime Minister to settle the furore over transport by removing it from the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions. But on BBC Radio 4 he complained: "I feel like the fox. It's open season on me at the moment."

That hunted feeling was worsened by the report of the Commons select committee on Transport, chaired by Labour veteran MP Gwyneth Dunwoody. She may have called him "darling" on the radio, but Mr Prescott still took the attack on his department very personally. She told the Today programme: "We are saying there are a lot of problems and it's silly to pretend there are not." and she added: "I don't think pointing that out is a bad thing."

Mr Prescott later went on the BBC Radio 2's Jimmy Young programme - one of the favourite shows for drivers stuck in traffic jams - to mount a fightback against the criticism over his handling of the transport portfolio.

Echoing the Prime Minister's words about carrying the "scars on my back" of trying to bring change to the public sector, Mr Prescott said: "Can I use that famous quote - I have got a few strikes across my back?" Asked whether his department was too big for one man, Mr Prescott said laughing: "No, because I'm superman."

He added: "Ted Heath did it many years ago, (he) saw the logic of putting these departments together. I think this is absolutely sound to have done this." Mr Prescott said the Chancellor Gordon Brown had been "very helpful to me", and added: "I have no doubt that I have the fullest support from the Prime Minister."

He also had support from an unexpected source the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mat-thew Taylor, who said it was "absolutely true" that Mr Prescott was responsible for more words than action, but the problem was not the Deputy Prime Minister.

"The problem stems from the Treasury who have blocked every effort to get more people to use public transport. The Government are refusing to act because they are afraid of the short term reaction from motorists," he said.

William Hague, the Conservative Party leader, called for Mr Prescott's sacking. "If I had a minister who had clearly done nothing of effect in his job, who was criticised in this way by a majority of members of his own party on the select committee report I would say I've got to get rid of that minister and have a minister who can actually do this job."

Donald Macintyre, Review, page 3