Deputy PM heads off critics as rivals eye job

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Indy Politics

John Prescott sought to reassert his authority last night by launching a radical shake-up of the cabinet committees he chairs, in an attempt to answer critics who called for him to resign from the Government.

The Deputy Prime Minister revealed in an exclusive interview for The Independent that he would be ordering cabinet ministers across Whitehall to step up their delivery of the manifesto commitments on green issues. He has written to all cabinet ministers to call them in for talks at his Whitehall office on how they intend to meet government pledges, including the target for cutting carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2012, which many believe is unachievable.

He mounted his fight-back hours after announcing that he was leaving his grace and favour residence, Dorneywood, to silence his backbench critics. Mr Prescott timed the announcement to avoid an attack at next week's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting.

Last night, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, threw his hat in the ring for the deputy leadership, but made it clear he was not going to campaign until Mr Prescott stands down. He told GMTV: "I want John Prescott to stay as deputy leader for as long as he wants to be deputy leader. So there's no campaigning going. But people have asked me if, when there is a vacancy, if I'd be interested in that vacancy and I've said quite honestly, 'Yes, I would'."

Mr Prescott said he was relieved that the row over being pictured playing croquet at Dorneywood appeared to be subsiding. "I know I am free of thinking about the damned problem, and now I can get on with this job. Frankly, I think the croquet story was a silly story but that's life. I have to recognise perception as well as reality. Here in this job I am back to reality."

Asked whether he accepted playing croquet was a mistake, he said: "I don't want to get into all that crap. It's amazing the things that people think are important."

He added: "It's piddling. We are talking about big issues, and they're not piddling. These are things that affect people's lives, this is what affects our prosperity, this is what will affect the success or not of a Labour government. By God, we never thought we would get a third term and I am going to use all my energies to make sure - with a lot of way to make up - we win the next election."

Speaking in his office at Admiralty House, the Deputy Prime Minister hit back at Tory and Labour MPs who claimed he had no job but a big salary, saying: "It's nonsense. It's right at the heart of government. If we are to deliver, and we are to win the next election ... you have to say this is the policy we achieved in 10 or 12 years and I am the one who has got to make sure we deliver it."

His remarks will be seen as an admission that the Government has failed to deliver on its promises so far. But Mr Prescott said he was determined to change the cabinet system. "The old approach of ministers coming along and defending their departmental brief or sending a junior minister along to not go further than their brief is no longer good enough," he said. "We have a collective responsibility to aim for what we said in the manifesto. It may be more painful for some departments but it means a change in the way they are doing things, perhaps a change in priorities to reach a higher level of priorities."

He will ask the Home Office to make sure environmental crimes are given a higher priority by the police. The Department of Education will be told it should be planning for greener schools and the local government department is being told it needs tougher environmental targets in housing and local government. The Department of Transport will be ordered to encourage cleaner vehicles and fuel, and cuts in fuel emissions from air travel.

Asked if he would be still around to make sure that all these initiatives are implemented, he hinted he was already looking towards his legacy. " This is exactly the job I wanted to do. It's the job I enjoy most - it's arguing and negotiating, I like that kind of style in politics. It will be working out the new framework up to the election. If I have anything of a legacy it will be to see that we win a fourth term."

He has one other legacy. As we left, he joked: "Asda say croquet sales have gone up 300 per cent."

And the reaction?

For

Andrew Dismore, Labour MP for Hendon (on decision to give up Dorneywood)

"There are some people who would be never satisfied, I guess, but as far as I'm concerned I'm a lot happier today than I was on Monday."

Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North

"I think he has listened and he has accepted criticisms, not just from backbench MPs but from the public generally."

David Miliband, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

"He's a big man, he has decided that the best thing for him to do is to give no possible suggestion that he has anything other than the interests of the country in his mind."

Against

Francis Maude, Conservative Party chairman

"John Prescott's political career is in effect over. The only dispute is over the time of death."

Vincent Cable, Liberal Democrat deputy leader

"This doesn't solve the underlying problem that he has been half-sacked by the Tony Blair and has lost his credibility."

Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Great Grimsby

"I think he's daft to [give up Dorneywood]. As soon as you throw a bit of red meat to the press pack, they want more."

Perks of the job: eight government grace-and-favour homes

Dorneywood

Customarily given to the Chancellor (though Gordon Brown relinquished his claim), this 21-room Buckinghamshire mansion was built in 1920, and gifted to the National Trust by Lord Courtauld-Thomson in 1947 as a country home for a senior member of the government.

Admiralty House

Actually three flats in Admiralty Arch, each estimated to cost the taxpayer £100,000 a year. Geoff Hoon currently has one, and the others are occupied by Margaret Beckett (Foreign Secretary) and John Prescott. The Arch was erected as a monument to Queen Victoria.

South Eaton Place, Belgravia

Traditionally given to the Home Secretary. Michael Howard has lived there, as has David Blunkett. Close to Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace, a similar property would cost around £3m. In 2002, £100,000 was spent on the property including an £85,000 refurbishment.

Chequers

The country retreat of the Prime Minister is an Elizabethan mansion in the Chiltern Hills near Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire. It was left to the government by Lord and Lady Lee of Fareham under the Chequers Estate Act in 1917. It also houses a collection of Cromwell relics.

1 Carlton House Terrace

Customarily the Foreign Secretary's London residence. Valued at £15m, it includes five bedrooms, a ballroom and a wealth of antiques and paintings. Designed by Nash, it lies between the Mall and Pall Mall, on the site of the Prince Regent's London residence, Carlton House.

Lord Chancellor's apartments

Fourteen rooms and a private flat spread over three floors, at the southern end of the Palace of Westminster. The refurbishments ordered by Lord Irvine in 1998 included £10,000 "picture lighting" to highlight the £1m of pictures loaned from the Scottish national galleries.

Hillsborough Castle

One of the most beautiful government residences, situated on the outskirts of Belfast. The 18th-century mansion set in 100 acres is worth about £10m. Traditionally the home of the Northern Ireland Secretary, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh also have rooms here.

Chevening

Grand, neo-classical house set in the Kent countryside, with 3,500 acres. Customarily occupied by the Foreign Secretary, it has 115 rooms including a library. It was designed by Inigo Jones and built in the early 17th century.

Research by Joss Garman

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