Prescott braced for defeat on assembly

John Prescott is braced for a stinging rebuff to his cherished plan to create an elected regional assembly in the North-east of England.

John Prescott is braced for a stinging rebuff to his cherished plan to create an elected regional assembly in the north-east of England.

The Deputy Prime Minister insisted that the outcome of the referendum on setting it up was "too close to call" yesterday. Aides hope that a late surge of votes in the postal ballot, likely to bring the final turnout to a respectable 40 per cent, will overturn an early lead for the anti-assembly campaign. The result will be declared at around midnight.

Mr Prescott has already delayed plans to stage referendums on establishing assemblies in the North-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber. Defeat in today's vote would deal a fatal blow to Mr Prescott's vision of a network of English regional assemblies.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats, backed by North-eastern celebrities including Sting and Paul Gascoigne, have joined forces to campaign for the assembly, which would have a £500m annual budget.

Opponents have branded the proposal a massive talking-shop, adopting an inflatable white elephant as their campaign symbol.

Early signs are that they have picked up between 55 per cent and 60 per cent of the vote, although their lead could have narrowed in recent days.

Speaking in the Commons yesterday, Tony Blair urged the region's electors to follow the lead of Scotland, Wales and London, where devolution had been a success. He said: "This North-east Assembly is going to be handling hundreds of millions of pounds of money. It will mean an actual reduction in the number of overall councils in the North-east.

"It is right that we have devolution and decentralisation of power and I support it."

But Graham Robb, a spokesman for the campaign group North-east Says No, said the assembly would mean "another layer of politicians". It was a "political project" which would "entrench the status quo" in the North-east, he said.

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