Tears and cheers as Prescott says he will bow out with Blair

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John Prescott brought the curtain down on his turbulent term as Deputy Prime Minister yesterday by announcing that he would step down next year at the same time as Tony Blair.

In an emotional performance that left some ministers in tears, Mr Prescott left his party with a warning to remain united during the coming leadership elections, which some fear could reopen old wounds between the unions and the Labour modernisers.

It was the end of an era that left opinion as sharply divided as ever over his contribution to the Blair years. The Tory frontbencher Oliver Heald said: "Almost every project that Prescott has overseen as Deputy Prime Minister has been mired in controversy or failure."

But his cabinet colleagues said he had kept Tony Blair and Gordon Brown united when their relationship hit crisis point. He also helped Mr Blair persuade the party to accept the abolition of Clause IV, its commitment to public ownership.

Jack Straw, the Leader of the House, said: "The thing that has always frustrated me is that people have never been able to see the contribution that he has made to the Government, in spite of the most appalling condescension by the media."

He kept his decision to step down out of the text circulated before his speech.

But in a carefully prepared sentence, echoing Mr Blair's words earlier in the week, he said: "I always said I would inform you - the party - first about my intention, not the press.

"Now I want to tell that this will be my last conference as your deputy leader. Thank you for electing me, and all the support over these last 12 years."

With his loyal wife Pauline shedding a tear by his side, Mr Prescott watched a video of his term in power, from the campaign battle bus in the 1997 general election to the famous punch at the 2001 election, which could have ended his political career. That brought the loudest cheer from the hall, suggesting he had regained the credit with his party he lost in the scandals of the past 12 months.

Mr Prescott began his speech to close the conference with a personal apology to the party for his affair with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple, which cast a pall over his final year in office. "I know in the last year I let myself down, I let you down. So conference, I just want to say sorry," he said. Some friends said he had no reason to comment on that, but others said he felt he owed it to his party.

In a swansong that was still being crafted in the early hours, Mr Prescott recalled his start as a "commis chef" in local hotels, before he became a steward on cruise liners.

He joked about Jamie Oliver's campaign for a healthy balanced diet. "I'm still a fish and chip man, myself," he said. "As some people might even say, 'I'm fat for purpose'."

He reminded the conference about the pledge cards in 1997, 2001 and 2005, claiming that each of the promises had been fulfilled.

And he joked that he would now be swapping "two Jags" for his bus pass - but he made it clear that he would be prepared to go back on the campaign battle bus for the next election. "I'll never leave the political fight," he said, vowing to keep campaigning for Labour.

The last two leadership elections had been a credit to the party, Mr Prescott said, adding that Labour must avoid the damage of disunity this time too. "I've seen Labour governments, elected with big majorities, driven out within a few years as the party bitterly divided," he said.

And Mr Prescott said he was proud of what he and Mr Blair had achieved together, despite occasionally agreeing to disagree. "Tony, we all know the greatest tribute we can make to your time in office is to find within ourselves the energy, the vision, the commitment, and yes, the discipline to win a historic fourth general election victory," he said.

Promises: Labour's 1997 pledge card

* Class sizes of more than 30 for 5-7-year-olds illegal by 2002

Fell from 10 per cent to 0.5 per cent of 5-7-year-olds by 2002

* Time from arrest to sentencing of young offenders halved

Time fell from 96 days in 1996 to 58 days in 2003

* NHS waiting lists cut by 100,000 patients

1,160,000 waiting in May 1997, and 1,033,000 in May 2001. But Labour allegedly cheated by making patients wait to get on lists

* 250,000 under-25s into work

In 2004, Blair claimed the figure had passed 500,000

* Tough government spending rules to ensure low inflation

For two years, Labour kept to spending totals set by the outgoing Tories. Spending up later