New Prescott gaffe reopens row over Blair leadership

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John Prescott raised fresh doubts about Tony Blair's premiership yesterday when he compared the Prime Minister to Harold Wilson in the days before he stood down from No 10.

John Prescott raised fresh doubts about Tony Blair's premiership yesterday when he compared the Prime Minister to Harold Wilson in the days before he stood down from No 10.

The Deputy Prime Minister referred to Labour's prospects "if" Mr Blair leads to the party into the next general election. Mr Prescott also refused to confirm that Mr Blair would serve a full third term in office if Labour is victorious at the polls. Asked repeatedly about Mr Blair's future, he stopped short of declaring that Mr Blair would continue, insisting that "I'm not Tony's mind" and warning that "he always considers events, events, events".

Mr Prescott's comments, at a Labour election press conference, were made just weeks after the now infamous roadside meeting between the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar.

Mr Wilson astonished his Cabinet when he announced his decision to stand down as Prime Minister during what was meant to be a routine meeting in March 1976, two years after the general election and six days after his 60th birthday. Asked yesterday if he had doubts about whether Mr Blair would lead Labour into the next election, Mr Prescott said: "Of course there's no doubt in my mind. I'm not Tony's mind, he has to take the decision. I have no doubt, if Tony Blair is leading us, and I believe he will, we will win that election. We believe our party will support him, the public will support him. He has been the most successful prime minister this country's had for many years."

Asked whether he wanted Mr Blair to carry on, Mr Prescott added: "I think if I had said that before Harold Wilson had made his statement I could never know what people's minds are. I'm convinced through my talks with Tony that he would like to lead us into that election. But he always considers events, events, events and this man has, I believe, got the confidence of the public. I believe without a shadow of a doubt that he could win and should win the next election."

Mr Prescott also side-stepped questions about whether Mr Blair intended to serve a five-year term of office if re-elected. He said: "I don't get into talks about that with Tony. We get on with how do we get our case across to the people, when the press want to talk about everything else but our record."

Earlier Mr Prescott raised speculation about the issue on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, suggesting that Mr Blair would lead the party into the next election "if he decided".

Pressed about his claim that "tectonic plates" are shifting in the Labour Party, Mr Prescott said: "What I was saying was some people perceived that was happening and therefore wanted to make statements. Tony Blair has been the most successful prime minister we have had, everybody agrees that. Indeed, I can tell you for sure that if he decides, and I am sure he will, that he wants to fight the next election, he would have the full support of the party."

Mr Prescott's comments overshadowed Labour's attack on what it claimed were Tory plans to cut up to £150bn from public spending. The party's latest election broadcast, screened last night, focused on Conservative spending plans after Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, suggested that his party plans to reduce public spending from 42 per cent to 40 per cent of national income.