Prescott's regional dreams in tatters

John Prescott's long-held dream of regional assemblies across England, leading the drive to bring jobs to employment black spots and protecting the economic interests of every corner of England, is on the point of being shattered.

The result of what was to be the first in a series of regional referendums, in the North-east of England, will be announced on Thursday, with early signs indicating a heavy victory for the "no" campaign, which is thought to have collected over 60 per cent of the vote.

Defeat will be a personal blow for Mr Prescott, who has campaigned for regional government for more than 20 years. It would be highly unlikely that the Government would risk a referendum in any other region, and that would eliminate any prospect of regional government in England for the foreseeable future. One of the North-east's leading "no" campaigners forecast yesterday that the setback could drive the Deputy Prime Minister into early retirement.

It will also be a dark warning for Tony Blair, who made a campaigning visit to the North-east alongside the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, that he cannot count on victory in any referendum, such as the one he has promised to call on whether Britain should ratify the EU constitution.

If forecasts are correct, a campaign endorsed by every senior politician in the North-east from the Prime Minister downwards, and by a galaxy of local celebrities, has been defeated by a mixed group of political amateurs led by a former market trader.

Neil Herron, head of North-East Against a Regional Assembly, first came to prom- inence as one of Sunderland's "Metric Martyrs" - traders who were ready to break the law by selling their wares in imperial measures rather than the kilograms and litres required by EU legislation.

His campaign has a single, easily understood theme - that a regional assembly would be nothing but a costly platform for party politics. The "yes" campaign has tried to convey a more complex message about promoting regional employment and gaining control over large planning projects.

Last week, the rock star Sting, who comes from Tyneside, added his name to the celebrity backers of the "yes" campaign., They include former Olympic athlete Brendan Foster, former England international Paul Gascoigne, businessman Sir John Hall and Middlesbrough's independent "Robocop" mayor, Ray Mallon. But yesterday Mr Herron confidently predicted that the "no" campaign will win.