Senior Labour MPs hatch plot to oust the croquet-playing Prescott

Deputy PM caught gamboling on lawns of Dorneywood as anger over affair and refusal to relinquish perks grows
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The Deputy Prime Minister is to be confronted by a delegation of senior Labour MPs who want him to go, The Independent on Sunday has learnt. Grassroots anger over his extramarital affair and refusal to give up his perks is driving MPs to demand that Mr Prescott quits. One senior backbencher said: "He is making us look like Tories."

That impression would seem to have been reinforced last night as The Mail on Sunday published pictures showing Mr Prescott playing croquet on Thursday afternoon.

The game and a subsequent picnic took place as Tony Blair was flying to Washington leaving his deputy in charge. Paul Clark, Mr Prescott's parliamentary private secretary secretary, later claimed that the game on the lawns of Dorneywood was part of an "away day".

Meanwhile, clear evidence of MPs plotting emerged last night in the form of documents obtained by The Sunday Times. One is said to record Angela Eagle, one of the Parliamentary Labour Party's six most senior members, saying she "wouldn't rule out a signature collection" to force Mr Prescott to quit.

Martin Salter, another member of the parliamentary committee, said: "There is absolutely no doubt that John Prescott's position has become a significant political issue for us."

Others say they are planning to confront Mr Prescott next week. "There is a lot of talk around now about a delegation telling him 'Time's up'," said one. Another said: "He's gone beyond a joke. It's hurting us badly. He is making us look like the Tories."

The race to succeed him as Labour's deputy leader has already begun, with leading candidates beginning to manoeuvre for advantage.

Harriet Harman will make a blatant pitch for the job in an interview for GMTV today, insisting that a woman should be one of two deputies elected to replace Mr Prescott.

Alan Johnson, Jack Straw and Peter Hain are all considering standing as it becomes clear that Mr Prescott's days in government are numbered. Even colleagues in the Cabinet now believe that the Deputy Prime Minister should stand down. "It is simply not sustainable," said one last week.

Mr Prescott, however, is determined to cling to his office, say his friends. In theory, he can remain deputy leader even if he is forced out, but few MPs believe he would want to prolong his humiliation in this way. Allies blame No 10 for the revelation that Mr Prescott resisted Mr Blair's advice to give up the Dorneywood retreat he was awarded as Deputy Prime Minister.

The growing calls for Mr Prescott's resignation and an early race for the deputy leadership is being viewed with alarm by Gordon Brown's camp. Until now, Mr Prescott's position has been assured since neither Mr Blair nor Mr Brown were thought to want a potentially divisive contest for the deputy leadership. Now, however, the Chancellor's supporters believe some Blairites want to force a deputy leadership race to wreck the "stable and orderly transition" of power between the Downing Street neighbours.

Their suspicions may not be misplaced. One Blair loyalist said: "We need to renew ourselves urgently, and a proper race for deputy leadership in which we can really debate the future of the party would be an excellent way of doing so."

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