Prescott the peacekeeper hosted secret dinners in bid to end leadership rivalry

John Prescott began his role as a peacekeeper within months of the 2001 general election victory, nearly two years earlier than previously reported.

John Prescott began his role as a peacekeeper within months of the 2001 general election victory, nearly two years earlier than previously reported.

The Deputy Prime Minister hosted a dinner at Dorneywood, his grace and favour residence in the country, for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the spring of 2002. He was alarmed that their personal rivalry would undermine Labour's second term and was determined to stop it. Few knew of the meeting and Mr Prescott was determined that his role should not leak out.

The former merchant seaman told Jim Naughtie on the BBC radio programme Today that as a waiter on board Cunard liners, he knew how to keep confidences. "As a waiter for 10 years I do have a professional ability here so I can help in getting these two people together," he said.

But Mr Prescott was never interested in acting as a power broker between the two men. He was adamant that he did not want to conduct negotiations for the handover of power, but forcefully told both Mr Blair and Mr Brown at their first meeting that they must "sort out" the differences together.

Mr Prescott was also clear from the moment he was elected as Mr Blair's deputy more than 10 years ago that he would remain loyal to the leader. He made it clear to Mr Brown that however much he admired Mr Brown's abilities, he could not support the Chancellor in trying to force out Mr Blair.

Mr Brown was convinced that Mr Blair had promised at the Granita dinner, when he agreed not to run for the leadership, that he would step down during a second term of office.

Mr Prescott was never a party to their private conversations at that stage, but was clear in his own mind that Mr Blair retained the right to decide his own departure date. The deputy leader hoped that their dinner at Dorneywood would clear the air, and avoid the second term being overshadowed by the succession question.

The tensions continued, culminating in the astonishing spectacle of Mr Brown and Mr Blair trading verbal blows at the October 2003 party conference. Mr Prescott in his own wind-up speech to the conference, warned both men that they were strongest when united.

Subsequent secret dinners at his third-floor flat in Admiralty House, overlooking Horseguards Parade, ensued as Mr Prescott tried, unsuccessfully, to get the pair together to resolve the situation.

Yesterday, Mr Prescott shed the marriage guidance counsellor image for the more comfortable one of shop steward, representing the backbench Labour MPs on the "shop floor".

"The troops are saying to the leaders, 'Get in line'," Mr Prescott said.

That has been his message to Mr Blair and Mr Brown for more than three years, and he is hoping that this time, they listen.

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