The Prescott Interview

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Vibrating cushions are among the hi-tech gadgetry on board John Prescott's Express tour coach. They are supposed to ease away the tensions when the going gets tough, but Mr Prescott is showing no signs of needing them. He is notoriously bad at resting, but having written his biography, I have not seen the deputy leader looking more relaxed than he did when he began the third week of an exhausting tour of the key Labour target seats.

Part of the secret, he says, is that he is making sure he gets an early night's sleep in the towns he is visiting, but he is relishing the tour.

The key-seats strategy has been in his sights since he won the deputy leadership in July 1994 and, in many ways, the Prescott road show has brought together the many facets of Prescott - the popular appeal, the drive to win, and the touch of showbiz.

Mr Prescott is also more comfortable in his relationship with the leader of the party. We were travelling on his bus to London after the launch of the new Labour slogan, "Britain deserves better". Having made the launch with Mr Blair on the rolling acres of a country-house hotel in mid-Kent, we boarded the Prescott Express with a joke from the deputy leader to a crowd of well-wishers: "You notice who's gone in the Jaguar and who's gone in the bus."

He has a firm promise from Mr Blair that he will become the Deputy Prime Minister if Labour wins office, and is secure in the knowledge that he will also have a big Whitehall job; in spite of speculation to the contrary, he is still set to be Secretary of State for a merged Department of Environment and Transport, which he would use to boost investment in transport, and to launch a council-house building programme.

Almost his first words in an interview for The Independent were about the potency of Tony Blair's appeal to the voters.

"I always get a warm reception, but it's extraordinarily warm. More important than that, they want to show their support. I've never been in an election where so many Tory people come up and say, 'I've changed'.

"What's interesting are partners, where you get one Labour and one Tory, obviously arguing about it. The partner is proudly introduced and he says, 'I've changed her, John'.

"What is quite true is that this is trusting Tony Blair. Tony Blair is the one who, to my mind, is signalling that sort of response.

"Curiously enough, it's not as if they think, 'I am for Tony Blair, but I am worried about Prescott'. It's as Tony pointed out a survey of Daily Mail readers - 60 per cent for Tony; 50 per cent for me ... 11 per cent for Harriet [Harman]. This business about me having an anti-effect on them is just not true."

The so-called bogeyman from the old Labour Left has softened his image; he smiles more often, and has shed the aggressiveness that was partly borne of his sensitivity to criticism about his trouble with syntax.

Some of the change has been deliberate, but Mr Prescott is famously resistant to the spin doctors and the image makers. He is now more at ease with himself. "It's a good indication that whilst they see Tony Blair and I are different in some areas, they don't see us as incompatible. It's a relationship that is working."

The tensions which existed in the Shadow Cabinet more than a year ago, have eased. Mr Prescott last week faxed a copy of a newspaper headline from a local paper saying "Brown must go" from his campaign bus in Cleethorpes to the Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

It referred to Mr Prescott's attack on the local Tory MP Michael Brown over "sleaze" allegations, but Gordon Brown saw the funny side. He already had it up in his office at Westminster.

Mr Prescott's support remains crucial to the success of a Blair government, and he will be one of the first to see the next Labour prime minister in Downing Street for the post-election ministerial appointments if Labour wins power.

Mr Prescott is not predicting a Labour landslide, even in private with the tape-recorder switched off. And he is not counting on the job he will get. "We'll see on 2 May," he says. As we talked, we tucked into packed lunches which had been made by the hotel. The deputy leader swapped the dainty brown-bread cream-cheese sandwiches without crusts for ham on white bread. "That tells you about me - I am a straight meat and bread man: I don't like all the cream."

The tour started with the deputy leader in the West Country eating a pasty, with a satellite link to a press conference at the Labour election headquarters, where Peter Mandelson is running the operation.

Since then, Mr Prescott, 58, has travelled from coast to coast, covering thousands of miles, and the Tories have suggested he is being marginalised by the spin doctors in Mandelson Towers, an allegation which he confidently laughs off. Autographing photographs of himself on the steps of the bus, he had joked to Labour supporters: "They like me to get out and about ... particularly [to] the Orkneys."

He knows what it is like to be the outcast. He was sidelined for the 1992 election campaign under Neil Kinnock, but, this time, he is being included in the election strategy, in spite of the distances he is travelling.

He may be out on the road, but Mr Blair and Mr Prescott are in touch twice a day on their mobile telephones. Labour's strategy for dealing with the anti-sleaze candidate in Tatton was decided over the airwaves from the Prescott Express.

The Prescott Express also receives regular feedback from MPs canvassing in the Tory marginals via Labour campaign headquarters - and computer analysis has helped Labour to identify areas where Labour turnout is low.

"We went to an estate where the turnout was less than 40 per cent. The point is we know that - not by chance. All the work we have done over the last two years by computer has identified where our support is strong, but the turnout is weak. That one estate alone would give us near to the majority in that constituency.

"We are using traditional techniques in a modern setting." It is a favourite Prescott phrase, used in his leadership campaign. Kids are fascinated by the bus, he says. They are eager for the Prescott "eXpress" stickers. Labour's pop theme tune - "Things can only get better" by D Ream - thumps out on the speaker system outside the bus.

Targeting the voters by Mr Prescott's regional tour is as vital to Labour's campaign as the wider audience reached by Mr Blair's national appeal. "It's a kind of laser approach," he said.

The hi-tech equipment - two televisions, fax machines, computers and a conference room - includes a CD player with Mr Prescott's favourite jazz music: Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, and Marion Montgomery, who is a close family friend. The deputy leader and his wife Pauline will have a lasting memento of the campaign: he is making a video recording of the entire campaign trip.

Colin Brown is the author of Fighting Talk, Simon and Schuster, pounds 15.99