and LOUISE JURY
Tony Blair yesterday testily dismissed as newspaper "tittle-tattle" reports that deputy leader John Prescott was being sidelined, and urged shadow Cabinet members at a special meeting not to allow the summer's "difficulties" to blunt their attack on the Government.
The Labour leader sought to focus attention on the party's economic policies as he launched the "New Labour-New Britain Business Tour" which will take him and his economic team of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Jack Cunningham to 18 towns and cities in the next two months.
But the absence of Mr Prescott from the news conference prompted a bad- tempered exchange with journalists who asked about the state of Mr Blair's relationship with his deputy. "I don't think I've read anything quite so silly as some of the things in the newspapers this morning ... You should remember that it was John Prescott and I who put through the biggest change in the Labour Party's constitution in the party's history. And we did it together." Mr Blair said.
Asked why Mr Prescott was not on the platform, Mr Blair responded crisply: "He's in Birmingham, putting the Labour Party's case."
Mr Prescott - who had already returned for the shadow Cabinet meeting - later sat by Mr Blair as the Labour leader set out the themes for the party conference in two weeks' time. Gez Sagar, hired last week by Mr Prescott as his personal press officer, said the deputy leader had "echoed" Mr Blair's strictures about not being "blown off course".
Philip Gould, the author of the memo leaked last week which led to speculation that Mr Prescott might have been "sidelined" in election planning, demonstrated that he was still in favour by presenting polling data said to show that the murmurings against Mr Blair's leadership over the summer had not dented Labour's lead.
But Mr Blair said that the purpose of this year's Labour conference was "to speak in direct terms to the British people and offer the commitment of a Labour government to specific things that can help change this country".
He went on: "People aren't interested in all this tittle-tattle - what they want to know about a Labour government is what is it going to do about the economy, about industry, about the education and health services, about crime, the problems of law and order on our streets. These are the real issues."
His spokesman promised: "At the end of conference week you should be clear about what Tony means when he talks about New Britain."