Now Straw throws his hat in

As John Prescott suffers the worst week of his political career, senior Labour figures talk of a 'plot' to sacrifice the Deputy Prime Minister to save Tony Blair
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As new tensions arose in the Labour Party over a Blairite "plot" to sacrifice the Deputy Prime Minister to save Tony Blair, the former foreign secretary was being spoken of in No 10 as a preferred choice to succeed Mr Prescott.

Allies of Jack Straw made it clear yesterday he would be interested in running for Deputy Leader if John Prescott stood down, but stressed that he wanted the Deputy Prime Minister to remain in office.

"His view is, there isn't a vacancy. If there was, it wouldn't be remotely surprising if he put his name forward. There would be people saying he should stand," said a friend of Mr Straw.

Sources close to Downing Street indicated that Mr Straw would be looked on favourably as a deputy to Mr Blair. One senior government source said Mr Straw and the Prime Minister had discussed the matter.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, is believed to be comfortable with the prospect of working with Mr Straw as Deputy Prime Minister. Allies said he could also work with Alan Johnson, Peter Hain or Harriet Harman.

Tensions within the party could bubble over tomorrow when Labour MPs are expected to express fury at what they see as briefing against Mr Prescott by allies of the PM.

At the first meeting of Labour MPs after their spring break, they are expected to complain about a "plot" to undermine Mr Prescott by arch-Blairites.

Yesterday one senior Labour figure accused Blairites of planting unfavourable stories about the Deputy Prime Minister in the media, including an untrue rumour that Pauline Prescott had threatened divorce if he gave up his palatial Dorneywood grace-and-favour country home.

He said Downing Street had been too slow to offer support for the Deputy Prime Minister. "This just illustrates the level of meltdown that's occurring in No 10. They are trying to stab John in the back as a way of saving Blair. The party has had enough of this," he said. "It is definitely going to be raised at the Parliamentary Labour Party."

Arch Blairites believe that a deputy leadership contest would deflect attention from the Prime Minister's troubles. It would also diminish Labour's appetite for another divisive contest for the post of Prime Minister.

Others in No 10 are terrified that Mr Prescott's future is too closely linked to Mr Blair's. They fear he may "give the game away" on when Mr Blair is leaving office and even make his departure swifter. "He has yoked himself to Tony on timing. They want to destabilise Prescott to decouple him from Blair," said a senior government figure.

But most Labour MPs believe a contest would divide the party and help the Tories. They want Mr Blair and Mr Prescott to leave office together and expressed support for the Deputy Prime Minister.

Angela Eagle MP, a former minister and a member of the Labour backbench committee that meets Mr Blair each week, said: "I think we should leave him to get on with the job. There is no point in having a deputy leadership election. A year of contests would be playing into the Tories' hands."

Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, has already indicated that he would be interested in Mr Prescott's job. He and Peter Hain have assembled considerable support in the unions and among Labour backbenchers.

But Hazel Blears, the Labour Party chairman who is also being spoken of as a possible deputy leader, yesterday warned those jockeying for position to "cool it" or risk plunging the party into a damaging internecine war.

At the end of the worst week of his political career, Mr Prescott insisted that he was "delighted" with his new slimmed-down job.

"I always wanted to do this job" he said. "I love negotiating. I love finding agreement. I could not think of a more richly rewarding job that matches my quarrelsome personality."

COMMITTEE KING: BUT WOULD HE BE MISSED?

John Prescott says he will keep busy working on parliamentary committees to justify his £134,000 salary. But what exactly will he do for his hard-earned money?

SUB-COMMITTEE ON AGEING POLICY

What does it do? Looks at issues like winter fuel bills.

Who's on it? Mostly junior ministers.

What does he do? Offers the real-life experiences of an old age pensioner.

Mallet rating: (out of 4) 2

COMMITTEE ON THE POST OFFICE NETWORK

What does it do? Considers the future of post offices.

Who's on it? Strangely not Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, a former postman.

What does he do? Tries to stop the Government getting the blame for closing village post offices.

Mallet rating: 2

COMMITTEE ON DOMESTIC AFFAIRS

What does it do? Deals with issues like race relations.

Who's on it? Most senior members of the Cabinet.

What does he do? The title is not to be taken too literally.

Mallet rating: 4

SUB-COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC HEALTH

What does it do? Looks at sexually transmitted diseases, obesity and diet.

Who's on it? The Health Secretary and senior ministers.

What does he do? Keeps the peace between health freaks and ministers.

Mallet rating: 3

COMMITTEE ON HOUSING AND PLANNING

What does it do? Considers whether to concrete over the green belt.

Who's on it? Most of the Cabinet, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

What does he do? Tries to look as if on the side of first-time buyers and greens.

Mallet rating: 3

COMMITTEE ON LOCAL AND REGIONAL GOVERNMENT

What does it do? Reorganisation of local government.

Who's on it? The most senior ministers.

What does he do? Retains enthusiasm for the most boring issue in Whitehall.

Mallet rating: 3

SUB-COMMITTEE ON INSPECTION

What does it do? "Provides strategic oversight of government policy on inspection."

Who's on it? Ministers.

What does he do? Supports the country's busybodies.

Mallet rating: 1

Key: 1 mallet Waste of even John Prescott's time. 2 Waste of everyone's time. 3 A talking shop. 4 Actually does work

CONTENDERS

Jack Straw Leader of House of Commons

Former foreign secretary. Compromise candidate. Vastly experienced.

Rating: Coming up fast.

Alan Johnson Education Secretary

Upbeat and smart. Shrewd operator. Almost universally liked by Labour MPs. Strong trades union contacts.

Rating: Odds-on favourite.

Harriet Harman Constitutional Affairs Minister

Most popular choice among women MPs. Close to Gordon Brown. Strong union links.

Rating: Will finish strongly.

Peter Hain Northern Ireland and Wales Secretary

A good campaigner but may find the opposition too tough on this outing.

Rating: Outside chance.

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