Labour in Blackpool: Prescott's presence at the helm undeniable: Donald Macintyre, Political Editor, assesses the strategic importance of the deputy leader's alliance with, and allegiance to, Tony Blair

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The Independent Online
ALASTAIR CAMPBELL, Tony Blair's incoming press secretary, could be seen in the cramped press room at Blackpool's Winter Gardens yesterday giving a loud and public dressing-down to a BBC reporter who had dared to suggest that John Prescott had been told only a few days before the party conference, as a fait accompli, that Mr Blair would be seeking the replacement of Clause IV.

We all make mistakes, and the row is a sign of the highly proactive briefing style of the new Blair office. But it also illustrates an understandable desire on the part of the leadership to make clear what is true, that Mr Prescott was involved in intimate discussions with Mr Blair on the bombshell in his speech, from several weeks ago.

Mr Prescott was not in favour of the replacement of Clause IV when Tony Blair first raised it. But the most important aspect of Mr Prescott's evolving relationship with Tony Blair is that, true to the promise which he made during the leadership election campaign, he will argue his case in private but believes his job is to support the leader once Mr Blair has made a decision.

And once it was clear that Mr Prescott was settled in his view, he set about helping Mr Blair execute his coup successfully. He urged Mr Blair, for example, to make it explicit that he was intending to amend the section of the constitution dealing with the party's aims and objects. If part of Mr Blair's pitch was that, as he put it on Tuesday, that 'we say what we mean and mean what we say', then he could not talk about new aims and values without mentioning the constitution. And as Mr Blair embarked on a hectic series of meetings to warn senior members of the Shadow Cabinet and the National Executive Committee of what he intended to do, Mr Prescott played a critical role, along with Mr Campbell and Pat McFadden, another key Blair staffer, in the drafting of the last two crucial pages of the speech. It was also out of Mr Prescott's original suggestion that Mr Blair's declaration that 'we should state our beliefs in terms the public cannot misunderstand and the Tories cannot misrepresent' evolved.

And he made no secret, in vigorous but constructive discussion with Mr Blair, of the importance he attached to Mr Blair highlighting in his speech the commitment to public ownership of the Post Office and British Rail.

And finally, Mr Prescott helped to shape the conclusion of a speech which emphasised that the statement about Clause IV came in a context which emphasised the regeneration of the party and the fact that the party had only last year amended its constitution to embrace one-member, one-vote democracy.

Mr Prescott's involvement in the process has illustrated how big a figure he now is in the Labour Party. Although he will not have a specific departmental portfolio, he will take an active interest in European policy; he will substitute for Mr Blair at Prime Minister's Questions when he is away, and he will have a role in the national party in some ways akin to that of a Tory party chairman.

Mr Prescott has a deep sense of political history, which is one reason why he took so seriously the whole issue of Clause IV. But he also knows how George Brown's deputy leadership under Harold Wilson became such a permanent headache for the party because of his habit of expressing disagreements in public. Mr Prescott is not of that mould. His whole political background is different from Mr Blair's, and there have been the surfacing of tensions on issues not yet agreed, for example, tax. But Mr Prescott has tended to move swiftly back into line.

He not only likes and respects Mr Blair, he regards Mr Blair's mandate in the leadership election as decisive in defining the party's obligation of loyalty to him. And Mr Blair now regards Mr Prescott as an electoral asset; it not just that Mr Prescott helps to deliver some of the left, or that he has a direct appeal to the elements of Labour's core working-class vote which has been falling in recent opinion polls. Private polling also suggests that his appeal is increasingly positive among middle-class voters as his profile increases. And the alliance between Mr Blair and Mr Prescott makes it significantly more difficult for the Tories to claim that the latter somehow represents the 'real', dangerous Labour Party.

(Photograph omitted)

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