Prescott anger at Lib-Lab deals

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JOHN PRESCOTT'S simmering anger at Tony Blair's decision to forge closer links with the Liberal Democrats boiled over in public yesterday.

The Deputy Prime Minister said: "I am not a great fan of it myself. I think if you have a majority of 179, you get on with delivering the promises."

Interviewed on BBC1's Breakfast With Frost, he defended Mr Blair's discussions with Paddy Ashdown over constitutional reform but deliberately stopped short of backing their recent agreement to extend it to other policy issues.

"We are a separate party," he said. "I am not a great man for coalitions." Asked if he might end up sitting in the same Cabinet as Mr Ashdown, Mr Prescott replied bluntly: "Not under the way I have described it."

The Deputy Prime Minister's comments will not come as a surprise to Mr Blair. At a Christmas party for Labour staff, Mr Prescott is said to have joked that the party would turn into the Nouveau Democrats in 10 years. But Mr Blair will be worried that his deputy has publicly voiced his doubts. They emerged as Mr Ashdown faced a fresh burst of criticism from his party's ranks over his agreement with Mr Blair to extend co- operation between the parties.

In a pamphlet published today by the Centre for Reform think-tank, two senior Liberal Democrat figures expressed fears that the party will lose its distinctive identity.

Lord Wallace, a frontbench spokesman on foreign affairs, also said that although Mr Blair's strategy sought to "absorb" the Liberal Democrats, he believed the final destinations of the two parties would remain separate.

Neil Stockley, the Liberal Democrats' former director of policy, said: "The [Liberal Democrat] party must develop its own distinctive, branded political message."