Prescott could rule the regions

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The Independent Online
The bid by John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, for elbow room in a future Cabinet intensified yesterday, as his allies speculated about a role as "governor of the English regions" equivalent to Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales.

A source close to Mr Prescott confirmed that Tony Blair, the Labour leader, was discussing changes to the structure of Whitehall ministries, and that the deputy leader saw an opportunity for a top-level job bringing together the economic regeneration efforts of several departments.

"It is still being discussed, but there are a number of ways of pushing the goal of full employment, which was John's theme in the leadership election," the source said.

The plan could spark new conflict with Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, whose grip on economic policy has caused friction in the Shadow Cabinet. Mr Prescott warned against an all-powerful "super Treasury" in a speech two weeks ago.

A Prescott supporter tried yesterday to suggest a mutually acceptable division of responsibility, with Mr Brown responsible for macro-economic policy (taxes, public spending and interest rates) and Mr Prescott handling micro-economics (labour markets and company-level policy).

But he skirted round the most glaring doubt hanging over Mr Prescott's status in a Labour government: would he inherit Michael Heseltine's Deputy Prime Minister title? "I'm sure John would like to do that job," he said.

The real question is what departmental responsibility Mr Prescott would have. The supporter pointed out that the work of four government departments, transport, trade, environment and the employment functions of the Education Department, were already co-ordinated in 10 regional centres in England.

These could be answerable either directly to Mr Prescott, or to a Cabinet committee chaired by him, like the present committee chaired by Mr Heseltine.

A spokeswoman for Mr Prescott said: "John thinks the leader will decide who he wants in which job at the appropriate time. That's a rule that applies to everyone and John is quite happy with that."

A spokesman for Mr Blair said these were decisions that would be made in government.

Another tension was resolved yesterday when party officials confirmed that Brian Wilson, Labour's transport spokesman, will "phase himself out of the transport team" to take up a campaign role. Mr Wilson, who has clashed semi-publicly with Clare Short, the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, will assume responsibility for the party's computer database, to be used for US-style "instant rebuttal" of Tory propaganda.

"We needed a lively politician with a journalistic mind to front the rebuttal operation and take political responsibility for it," said a Labour official. Mr Wilson will answer to Mr Brown, who has overall responsibility for campaigning.

News of Mr Wilson's appointment came as Tory Central Office confirmed that it had acquired exactly the same computer software, a database system called Excalibur, as the Labour Party.

The Independent revealed last week that Excalibur had been donated to Labour by millionaire supporter Philip Jeffrey, in order to use the party's experience to sell it as a commercial product.

A Tory spokesman said yesterday that it would run on more sophisticated hardware than Labour's, at a cost of pounds 500,000.