John Prescott's precarious position worsened yesterday when Tony Blair's old favourite Peter Mandelson dropped a strong hint that the Deputy Prime Minister might do the Labour Party a service by resigning. Three backbench Labour MPs repeated the same message, in plainer language.
The veiled comment from Britain's European Commissioner provoked suspicions that some of Tony Blair's circle want him to sack his beleaguered deputy - something Mr Blair is thought to be very reluctant to do. It brought a furious reaction from supporters of Gordon Brown, who is vehement that the Deputy Prime Minister should stay for at least as long as Tony Blair is in Downing Street.
Mr Mandelson's comments followed the publication at the weekend of Mr Prescott playing croquet on the lawn at his grace-and-favour home, Dorneywood, near Burnham in Buckinghamshire. The agency photographer who took the pictures, Gary Trotter, told the BBC that he had had difficulty holding his cameras steady because he was laughing so much.
Labour MP Paul Clark, Mr Prescott parliamentary aide, said that the photographs had been taken during an "away day" at which members of Mr Prescott's team met to discuss the reorganisation of his office. Mr Prescott has told friends that he is determined not to give any ground in what he sees as a campaign by newspapers to force him out of his elected role as Labour's deputy leader.
Mr Mandelson told BBC's Today programme: "All I would say about John is that he is a party man to his fingertips and, whatever he does, he'll do what's in the party's interest I'm sure - not his own." Mr Mandelson, who has often voiced thoughts that the Prime Minister shares but cannot say in public, used similar language 12 years ago, when he was putting pressure on Gordon Brown to pull out of the race for the Labour Party leadership for Tony Blair's benefit.
One furious Brownite MP said yesterday: "Peter Mandelson would do best to concentrate on the job he was so lucky to get after he had had to resign twice from the Cabinet. The idea that Peter Mandelson has the interest of the Labour Party at heart is a joke. All he is trying to do is take revenge on John, because they have never got on. There were Blairite MPs briefing against John last week. If it's not organised in Downing Street, it's got their tacit approval, and Tony Blair should rein them in."
But the pressure on Mr Prescott to stand down is now, ominously, coming from Labour MPs who held on to their seats by narrow majorities last time and fear that the damage he is doing to the Government's reputation will finish their political careers at the next election.
Christine McCafferty, who held her Calder Valley seat by only 1,367 votes last year, said the publicity generated by Mr Prescott's affair with a civil servant was turning women voters away from Labour. "I don't believe we are going to be able to re-engage those women while they have a perception that the party is rewarding someone who's had an affair with an employee," she told the BBC's World at One programme. "It's clear to me that many women voters in particular are very unhappy that John is still in post. It does seem as though he is benefiting - not to say being rewarded - when he clearly has breached, perhaps in some people's eyes, a moral code."
Derek Wyatt whose Sittingbourne and Sheppey seat is among Labour's most marginal, with a majority of only 79, called for Mr Prescott to resign as Deputy Prime Minister but retain his position as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. "I don't think it's tenable that he should maintain Dorneywood or the Admiralty flat or the chairmanship of the committees," he said.
Michael Jabez Foster, whose majority in Hastings and Rye is only 2,026, called for an "orderly transition" to a new leadership, and named Harriet Harman as a "very good choice" for the deputy's job.
Others stepped forward to defend Mr Prescott. London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, praised him as one of the few politicians who spoke "like ordinary people." Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, said he had done "an excellent job" chairing an emergency committee that met on Sunday to consider relief for victims of the Indonesian earthquake.
How his troubles have multiplied
* 26 April: News of John Prescott's extra-marital affair with diary secretary Tracey Temple breaks. He admits the affair between 2002 and 2004.
* 27 April: Newspapers publish photographs showing Mr Prescott with Ms Temple in his arms at an office party. She flees to a hideout in France.
* 30 April: Ms Temple's diaries are published, claiming the pair had sexual relations in his office while other civil servants worked outside. Other affairs Mr Prescott is accused of emerge. He denies them and Ms Temple's account.
* 5 May: His wife Pauline indicates she will stand by her man, holding hands with him as they vote in local elections.
* 6 May: In a major reshuffle, Tony Blair strips Mr Prescott of his responsibilities but allows him to keep his grace-and-favour country home, Dorneywood, and his £133,997 salary.
* 7 May: Police refuse to investigate a complaint claiming Mr Prescott committed an offence with an affair in working hours.
* 8 May: Mr Prescott publicly admits: "I have been stupid."
*18 May: He faces ridicule in the Commons over his affair as he appears at the dispatch box.
* 24 May: Ms Temple's PR agent, Max Clifford, says she will be transferred to another Whitehall department.
* May 28: Pictures of Mr Prescott playing croquet with civil servants and Special Branch officers during working hours are published, with reports that Labour MPs plan to force him from officeReuse content