Prescott attacks 'snobbish' critics and calls for end to Labour feuds

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John Prescott warned supporters of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown last night to stop their "war" over the Labour leadership as he hit back at critics who have accused him of freeloading at the taxpayers' expense.

In his first interview since the graphic revelations about his affair with his 43-year-old diary secretary, Tracey Temple, the Deputy Prime Minister also said he had been to blame for the scandal. "I have been stupid. I don't think there is any doubt about that," he said.

Mr Prescott said the "trauma" of the past fortnight had made him reflect on the way he had behaved towards those close to him, including his wife Pauline, who has remained loyal to him. "You could say that it's certainly been a period of reflection and to analyse how I have acted. Anybody who doesn't feel affected by something as traumatic as that has lost their sensitivity.

"I have learnt my lessons about these matters. I just want to get on and show I can do a job and make a contribution and be a valuable part of the Labour Party and this Government."

But the controversy over Mr Prescott's pay and perks will continue despite his decision to come out fighting about them and Tony Blair's declaration of support yesterday.The Conservatives served notice that they would continue to harry the Deputy Prime Minister over what he does to justify his £133,000 salary now that the Whitehall department created for him has been abolished.

David Cameron, the Tory leader, said his party would ask for answers to "very legitimate questions" that had arisen about Mr Prescott's role since Mr Blair reshuffled his Cabinet on Friday. "He seems to have lost his job but kept his pay and perks," he said.

Mr Prescott, who acted as an honest broker to repair relations between Mr Blair and the Chancellor before the election, called on their supporters to cool down and avoid turning the row over the timing of the handover into a damaging crisis.

MPs were expected to ask Mr Blair to set a timetable for the handover at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) last night but Mr Prescott urged them to wait until the party conference in October. He said: "Whatever you do it's a decision by conference and the national executive and that cannot take place until October. So whatever the feelings about this and conference, I do say to people, don't get into the war about it now. It is an unnecessary distraction."

His remarks will be seen as the clearest hint so far that Mr Blair may signal his intentions to the party conference. "It's publicly known I have always tried to help," Mr Prescott said.

"But at the end of the day, Tony has to make his judgement about when he wants to go and then the candidates come forward. We want an orderly and smooth transition. I think we are all going to move towards that. I think it's possible and all of us should work towards that."

He warned the factions: "I don't think people outside will be happy if the PLP continues to express great divisions about this, as we all know that is damaging to the party."

Mr Prescott reserved his sharpest fire for critics who had accused him of enjoying the perks of office at taxpayers' expense without having to run a department. Last week, Mr Blair allowed him to remain as Deputy Prime Minister with the trappings of office including a £133,000 cabinet salary and two grace-and-favour homes, but abolished his department.

He was strongly defended yesterday by Mr Blair, who praised the behind-the-scenes work that his deputy does in chairing more than 12 cabinet committees and brokering deals across government. Mr Blair said these would include reaching cabinet agreement on proposals for pensions reform and the possible new generation of nuclear power stations.

Mr Prescott said it was a myth to suggest he was "stripped" of office. He said he had asked the Prime Minister more than a year ago to allow him to focus on chairing cabinet committees and representing Mr Blair abroad rather than running the department for local government and planning.

He accused Tory critics such as Lord Heseltine, himself a former deputy prime minister, of "snobbishness" in protesting against his use of Dorneywood, the official country house in Buckinghamshire.

The Deputy Prime Minister said: "I do the job - you can argue about the competency - but the workload and the responsibilities I have got have frankly been far more than the others, particularly Heseltine, who did two hours a week as far as I can see."

He added: "Heseltine already has a big house in the country, and perhaps others in other parts of the world. I have one house [in Hull] and one car [a second-hand Jaguar]."

A traumatic fortnight

By Geneviève Roberts

26 April 2006: Prescott admits to affair with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple, between 2002 and 2004.

30 April: Mail on Sunday publishes her diaries. She claims Prescott took her to Iraq war memorial service at St Paul's, then to his flat in Admiralty House where they had sex. Mail on Sunday also alleges Mr Prescott had an affair 20 years ago with a former parliamentary candidate, Sarah Bisset-Scott, and had other lovers. Mr Prescott says he will complain to Press Complaints Commission over investigations into former liaisons; He says many of Ms Temple's accounts are "simply untrue".

1 May: Labour MP Stephen Pound says Prescott should "consider his position" as revelations about his affair are causing "problems" on the doorstep in local election campaign.

2 May: David Cameron, the Conservative leader, says Prescott "clearly looks a fool" over his affair and adds that he has a "woeful" record in office.

4 May: Training to ensure a "positive climate" at Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is announced, after criticism of bullying and discrimination within department.

5 May: Blair announces reshuffle - Prescott keeps position but loses his department.

6 May: Labour MP Geraldine Smith says it is "outrageous" that Prescott should keep his homes and salary after the reshuffle. Kate Hoey says people will wonder "what on earth he is going to get paid for".

8 May: Conservatives demand that the Speaker rule on whether Mr Prescott should continue to answer MPs' questions in the Commons. Mr Blair says Mr Prescott will play an important role in helping steer the Government's agenda on to the statute book.