Clamour grows for Deputy PM to be replaced

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Indy Politics

John Prescott's week in charge of the Government while Tony Blair is on holiday began inauspiciously with renewed calls for him to quit. Fears are rising on the Labour side that he is undermining the Government by drawing a £133,000 salary and lavish perks without appearing to have a proper job.

The Deputy Prime Minister's problems multiplied after a photographer using a long lens caught him playing croquet in his grace-and-favour mansion, Dorneywood, Kent,when he was nominally running the state.

Baroness Kennedy warned that he would find it difficult to persuade anyone to take him seriously. "Every time he stands up to speak, people are going to be making ribald references to the photos we all know and we saw in the papers," the Labour peer told BBC1's Sunday AM. "There is an undermining of any kind of status that he might have within the party and people feel that a move on might be timely."

His position was unsettled further by the leak to The Sunday Times of an e-mail written by someone who is apparently working behind the scenes to test support for the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, should he become a candidate for Mr Prescott's job.

The e-mail weighed up the views of 10 Labour MPs, and speculated that Angela Eagle, who acts as a shop steward for backbench MPs, "wouldn't rule out a signature collection" to force Mr Prescott's resignation.

Miss Eagle denied being involved in any manoeuvre against the Deputy Prime Minister. "I have seen no document. I am not aware that any exist," she said.

Denis MacShane, a former Foreign Office minister, also denied knowing of a plot against Mr Prescott, but he also told Sky News: "We have to have the complete renewal from top to bottom. Read into that what you will."

And the former Downing Street head of policy Geoff Mulgan said that Mr Prescott's "real problem" is that "no one knows quite what his job is any more", and that the photographs gave the impression of someone with too much time on his hands.

In the cabinet reshuffle earlier this month, Mr Prescott relinquished control of his government department but retained his cabinet salary and other perks, including two grace and favour homes. The impression that he had stopped doing his job but has held on to all the benefits has angered Labour activists more than the revelations about his affair with his diary secretary.

Tony Blair might decide not to replace Mr Prescott if he simply resigned his post as Deputy Prime Minister and his cabinet rank. But if he also resigned from his post as deputy leader of the Labour Party, there would automatically be an election to replace him, putting pressure on Mr Blair to bring forward the date for his own resignation.

Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, is seen as the front runner in a deputy leadership election because of his working-class and trade union background.