Prescott pleads for end to the sniping

Labour reshuffle
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The Independent Online
JOHN PRESCOTT was making it clear last night that he will remain firmly in charge of transport policy in spite of losing his trusted allies in sweeping changes ordered by Tony Blair within his department.

The Deputy Prime Minister prevented the break-up of his troubled Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions in the face of pressure from Downing Street advisers for a more radical change.

He paid the price with some of his friends being sacked or promoted into other departments but he is keeping firm control over transport, in spite of the Prime Minister's decision to appoint Lord Macdonald as the transport minister to deliver improvements after the failure of Helen Liddell to make an impression.

As the reshuffle took place, Mr Prescott met Mr Blair to seek a ceasefire in the Whitehall sniping over the transport brief. He is believed to have urged Mr Blair to stop the off-the-record briefing by aides against him and ensure unity between Downing Street, Lord Macdonald the DETR.

His priority was to retain control over transport, and he did not object to his closest ally in government, Dick Caborn, being promoted to the Department of Trade and Industry. "It's no bad thing to have allies in other parts of Whitehall," said a ministerial friend.

But Mr Prescott was "saddened" by Mr Blair's decision to sack Alan Meale, a junior minister who had nothing to do with the row over transport. Glenda Jackson's exit to run for election as mayor of London opened the way for promotions by Mr Blair of Chris Mullin and Beverley Hughes to Mr Prescott's office.

Mr Prescott is determined to call a halt to the attempts by some in the Number Ten policy unit and old enemies to undermine his integrated transport plans, including congestion charging, as "anti-car".

His friends are critical of the handling of the reshuffle by Downing Street. "It was a shambles," said one source.

It was made clear later that there will be no U-turn on transport policy, and the controversial M4 bus lane will not be scrapped until it has been fully tested. Mr Prescott knew Lord Macdonald as a former shipyard union activist before the transport minister joined the Labour Party, and they have worked together before.

"Everybody said they were going to break up the department. He has got a good transport minister coming in. Gus will be better than Helen and will work with John," said a ministerial friend.

Mr Prescott, having kept transport under his wing, is more relaxed about losing part of his empire to a new ministry for the countryside, merged with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, stays in charge of controversial countryside issues at the DETR such as the right to roam but Downing Street would resist any move to promote him to the Cabinet to head the new ministry.