How Prescott worked for smooth transfer of power

In an extract from his new biography of John Prescott, Colin Brown reveals how the Deputy Prime Minister tried to persuade Tony Blair to name his departure date
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Three days earlier, Blair had been elected for an unprecedented third term, but there had been none of the triumphalism of Blair's "new dawn" when he arrived in Downing Street fresh-faced and confident in 1997.

On the streets, Prescott had been confronted with hostility to Blair. Largely as a result of the war on Iraq and the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to justify it, trust in Blair across the country had crashed.

The result was widely seen as a "bloody nose" for Blair, in spite of winning a historic third term, and it would have been even worse had not Gordon Brown helped to shore up Blair's collapsing personal support in a series of carefully stage-managed events during the election campaign. The lasting image of the campaign was Blair buying an ice-cream for Brown. Prescott privately called it the "love-in".

It was in sharp contrast to the unceremonious way Brown had been removed from the campaign strategy team before the election by Blair, who had put Alan Milburn in his place. The calculated insult to Brown had inspired a series of reports that Brown would also be removed from the Treasury after the election, when Blair would reassert his authority and put a fresh new Labour stamp on his government. It had not been easy to persuade Brown to bury his own resentment with Blair over the way he had been treated and return to the front line of the campaign. Alastair Campbell, Blair's former communications director, brought back for the election, had gone up to Scotland to persuade Gordon to return to the campaign strategy team.

Prescott also had used all his influence on Brown and Blair to broker their rapprochement for the good of the party. One of Prescott's allies said that Prescott had spoken to Blair in the bluntest terms before the election about bringing Brown into the campaign. "He really laid it on the line to Tony," said the source. "He told him, 'If you don't sort it out we will all suffer'. It was a fairly tough meeting.'" Now all that hard work was being put at risk and Prescott was worried that it would sour their relations once more.

Although he remained loyal to Blair as his deputy, Prescott had spent the previous four years ensuring that when the time came, there would be a smooth transition of power between the two men. Blair's last word on the subject, in October 2004, had been that he would stand at the next election, but stand down after serving a "full term". Left-wing MPs who had opposed the war on Iraq, top-up fees and foundation hospitals, found trust in Blair had collapsed and were not prepared for him to serve a "full term" after winning their seats. Within 24 hours of his victory, some MPs were lining up to say: "Blair must go." There were reports that there would be a showdown with the 'awkward squad' at the first meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party.

As Prescott prepared to fly to Moscow, Downing Street launched a counter-attack, briefing the media that having just won a historic third term, Blair had no intention of leaving office until he was ready. Blair now seemed to be retreating from the understanding he had reached with Brown, and Prescott, who was party to the deal, was angry.

"He can't just tough it out," Prescott told his allies. Prescott had remained totally loyal to Blair, as he had promised when they were elected together as leader and deputy leader in 1994, but this was now testing his loyalty to the limit. He had no intention of helping Brown force Blair out, but he feared that the No 10 briefers were now threatening to provoke another outburst from Brown, who, according to Prescott's friends, had warned Prescott in the run-up to the election: "He's ratted on me, and he will rat on you." That was a reference to the long-disputed dinner at Granita restaurant, in which Blair is said to have promised to hand over to Brown in the second term.

To Brown and Prescott, the presumption inside Downing Street that it was "business as usual" was untenable, given the rescue operation they had mounted to help ensure that Blair was elected for a third term. Prescott feared that there would be great bitterness in the party at the way the Blair camp was continuing to insist that Blair would serve a full term. The party would want to know the date for Blair's departure and, in his opinion, it had a right to know.

The resignation speech by Michael Howard, the defeated Conservative Party leader, had brought the issue to a head, in Prescott's view. There was speculation that Howard might stay on to fight the European referendum and then go. That timetable seemed to Prescott and Brown a good framework for Blair's departure. It would give Blair 18 months, not the three-and-a-half years the Blair camp had suggested, to complete his term of office, and prepare for an orderly succession.

As a passionate party man, Prescott always thought in terms of party timetables, and it seemed right to him that Blair's departure or Brown's coronation should fit in with the annual party conference in 2006, which could provide Blair with a platform for his swansong, leaving Brown to take over as leader in the spring or summer of 2007. However, if Blair prevaricated until the autumn of 2008, as his aides had clearly implied, Brown could be left with little more than six months as Prime Minister to prepare for the next general election in 2009.

Prescott forcefully relayed the message to Blair that he did not think the party would allow him to carry on, regardless of the election result, for another three or more years. Blair got the message. By the time the "showdown" meeting with the parliamentary Labour Party took place on Wednesday 11 May, the mood in the Blair camp had changed. Blair sat at the front of the room, at a desk on a raised platform, normally occupied by a committee chairman and clerks. The meeting was packed, with 300 MPs jammed into the room; some, who failed to find a space to squeeze into when they opened the door, trudged back to the bars to hear about Blair's speech from those who managed to get in. Blair was flanked by Brown and Prescott, who had returned from Moscow. Blair looked and sounded confident. Some said it was the best speech they had heard him deliver. It was cleverly judged, and strongly delivered. There would be no retreat on the modernising agenda and no return to a more left-wing version of new Labour. But the key sentence that quelled the unrest was Blair's appeal for time to ensure "a stable and orderly transition", which everyone present understood to mean a transfer of power to Gordon Brown. He had not gone so far as to provide a timetable, but he had done enough.

'Prescott' by Colin Brown is published today by Politico's, priced £12.99. To buy 'Prescott' for the special price of £11.99 (with free p&p) call 08700 798 897. Colin Brown is deputy political editor of 'The Independent'