Prescott's plea from the cold

New evidence that deputy feels excluded from inner circle adds to Blair's troubles, reports John Rentoul
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The Independent Online
The strains at the top of the Labour Party were exposed yesterday by the leak of a letter from the deputy leader, John Prescott, to his Shadow Cabinet colleagues demanding that all important documents are "copied to me at the same time as they are copied to the leader's office".

The latest evidence that Mr Prescott feels excluded from Labour's inner circle was dismissed as a "routine reminder", but it follows a long series of semi-public protests at being subjected to what his predecessor, George Brown, famously called a "complete ignoral".

In an interview with The Independent two weeks ago, Mr Prescott said: "Sometimes policies seem to appear rather quickly. I think this has left the party feeling a little uneasy."

The memo, which was sent from Mr Prescott's Commons office in the last few days, insisted: "As we enter the next phase of the 'Road to the Manifesto' campaign, and the general election campaign itself, it is especially important that I am kept apprised of all policy developments."

A spokesman for Mr Prescott described it as a "gentle reminder to the Shadow Cabinet of the existing procedure", while Mr Blair's office dismissed reports as a "ridiculous fuss about administrative trivia". But the letter, addressed to Shadow ministers rather than their staff, was clearly intended to assert the deputy leader's authority.

Mr Prescott is known to have been angered - sometimes to the point of talking about resignation - by the failure of Mr Blair's office to consult him. He was not told in advance of Harriet Harman's decision to send her son to a selective school, and was unhappy with the plans of shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown to cut benefit for young people who stay on the dole.

After Labour backbencher Austin Mitchell's unhelpful article in New Statesman magazine, the leak was a further distraction from the launch of Mr Blair's nationwide tour to sell Labour's manifesto.

Furthermore, the leadership is engaged in a desperate arm-twisting exercise in Scotland to avoid a further embarrassment this morning - defeat in a close vote on the ruling Scottish executive over his plans for a two-question referendum on a Scottish Parliament. Activists have been boiling with resentment since the Labour leader's U-turn on the issue, and want to drop the second question on a Scottish Parliament's powers to change income tax.

"It's on a knife-edge, and we think we've got a majority," Bob Thompson, associate Scottish secretary of the public services union Unison, told The Independent.