Prescott delights left and right

Labour's high command yesterday backed away from open conflict with John Prescott following yesterday's Independent interview on the substance and style of New Labour change.

But the waves created by the deputy leader's forthright language - confirming that lots of MPs voted for shadow cabinet candidates "they couldn't stomach" - were welcomed by many traditionalist MPs who were content with Mr Prescott's "boat-rocking" protest.

A significant proportion of MPs, perhaps even a silent majority, share the deputy leader's view that Mr Blair has pushed party and policy change to the limits of endurance.

They are willing to suffer in silence in the interests of unity, but that does not mean they like it, and the row over Harriet Harman's choice of grammar school for her son showed there are limits to their patience.

Pouring oil on the troubled waters created by Mr Prescott, a leadership spokesman said: "Tony Blair himself has frequently spoken of the inevitable impact of modernisation on some in the party.

"The important point is that Labour is stronger, fitter, more democratic and more united and self-disciplined as a result of the changes which, on every occasion a vote has been taken, have been overwhelmingly endorsed by the membership."

But Mr Prescott's mainstream point appeared to be underlined by Doug Hoyle, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, who said that while colleagues had displayed unity by voting for the Shadow Cabinet as a whole, it might have included backing some candidates they did not like.

That element of the Prescott interview was belatedly picked up by the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo last night. He said: "It is an amazing state of affairs when you have a deputy leader of the Labour Party admitting they have voted for fellow colleagues whom they cannot stand.

"Why, then, should they expect the British people to vote for those whom even they cannot stand?"

Predictably, a number of "likely suspect" Labour MPs exploited Mr Prescott's remarks for their own critical purposes.

Alan Simpson, chairman of the left-wing Campaign Group of MPs, warned that Labour's popularity would be short-lived if it tied itself to Tory policies.

"The party would do well to heed what John Prescott is saying. We have the same back-room approach to fighting the next election as we had towards the last one.

"There's a perception we are trying to tie ourselves in very closely to where the Conservatives are in the hope we can just steal a march by cleverness.

"That didn't serve us well in the last two elections and we ought to be asking whether that is going to fare any better for the coming one.

"What Labour will discover very quickly is that if we change position without having a different agenda, that popularity is a short-lived one."

Letters, page 13

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