Alan Watkins: When the Chancellor enters No 10, he should give this non-job a decent burial

Mr Prescott has proved a constant embarrassment to all concerned
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I hope Mr Gordon Brown restores the tradition of not having a Deputy Prime Minister in a Labour cabinet. There is not the slightest need for such a creature. In 1997, Mr Tony Blair clearly felt the urge to do something, as he did on numerous other matters. He dredged up a denizen of the deep, in the shape of Mr John Prescott.

All kinds of ingenious reasons were advanced at the time. The real one was to protect his flank, which is what usually happens in Conservative cabinets. In the event, Mr Prescott did little to guard the Prime Minister or to advance his own interests. He has proved a constant source of embarrassment to all concerned.

For some months now, we have known that Mr Prescott was shortly to take his leave. I would read leading articles in the expensive papers saying that Labour was soon to appoint a new Deputy Prime Minister. It was - it is - the greatest nonsense imaginable. Mr Prescott was the deputy leader. He was elected fair and square in 1994, to a position which he has retained.

At some point in 2007 he will be replaced by one of those characters who are now making themselves ready to display themselves before our admiring eyes. He or she will be chosen at the same moment, presumably, as Mr Brown is nominated to succeed Mr Blair. The main difference is that there will be more candidates. Indeed, the line-up is becoming more and more like Beachcomber's case of the 12 red-bearded dwarfs. It is even being suggested that the entire performance should be called off.

At the latest count, there were seven of them: Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears, Jon Cruddas, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, Jack Straw. Several of these will almost certainly fall by the wayside, for one reason or another: the largest number of candidates for the deputy leadership was four in 1983, when Roy Hattersley won easily. But six members contested the leadership itself in 1976. On that occasion, James Callaghan won after three ballots.

In two more recent party elections - for the deputy leadership in 1992 and the leadership in 1994 - there were three candidates. Both times, Mrs Margaret Beckett was one of them. On the first occasion, Mrs Beckett won the deputy leadership outright, by an absolute majority and, on the second occasion, Mrs Beckett lost outright. The rules provided (as they still provide) that the successful candidate should have a 50 per cent majority.

I maintained at the time that the result should still have to be arrived at by means of an exhaustive ballot, as laid down in the original party rules. The National Executive Committee preferred the alternative vote, with preferences marked once-and-for-all. Successive, separate ballots would be, the committee said, the cause of unnecessary expense. Luckily for Labour, the party has come up with 50 per cent or more on the top candidate first time round, in every election since Denis Healey and Tony Benn in 1981, when the former won by under 1 per cent. My own view is that, even with the new electoral college in place, we should revert to the exhaustive ballot if there is a large number of candidates (as, of course, there may not be when it comes to the point).

Appointing a Deputy Prime Minister is an entirely different matter. C R Attlee was Winston Churchill's deputy in the war. He was leader of the Labour party, was part of the coalition and had oversight of home policy. Attlee, as the incoming Prime Minister, did not want to see Herbert Morrison either at the treasury or at the Foreign Office.

He suggested instead that Morrison should take the Lord Presidency of the Council, acting as a sort of overlord at home, together with the deputy premiership and the leadership of the House.

As far as I have been able to establish, Morrison's position was never formally gazetted. It seems somehow to have come about by general acceptance. In much the same way was he made deputy leader after Greenwood in 1945. When Morrison "asked to be number two", Attlee "readily accepted". The first election for deputy leader took place in 1952, when Morrison defeated Aneurin Bevan.

Such contests have taken place periodically ever since. In the Labour governments of 1964-70 and 1974-79, there was no expectation that George Brown, Edward Short and Michael Foot would become Deputy Prime Minister to Harold Wilson or Callaghan. Certainly many people believed that Brown was Wilson's deputy PM. Sometimes he seemed to believe it himself. When he resigned from the government in 1968, he carried on as deputy leader for two years. But he was never Deputy Prime Minister.

The Conservatives are more prodigal with the bauble. Anthony Eden was less a deputy than a designated, agreed successor. He proved ill-suited to his duties because of his state of health. R A Butler found himself doing most of the work instead. He was rewarded by Harold Macmillan in an excess of guilt, though he did the job for little more than a year. William Whitelaw went on and on under Margaret Thatcher, for nine whole years.

Her motive was to show appreciation of Whitelaw. With Sir Geoffrey Howe, it was quite different. Much to Sir Geoffrey's annoyance and that of his wife, Elspeth, they were deprived of his country residence, Chevening, in Kent, when he was forced to leave the Foreign Office. She offered him the leadership of the House and he asked to be Deputy Prime Minister as well. Norman St John-Stevas says from time to time that this post is "unknown to the constitution". On this occasion, Bernard Ingham echoed him in more forthright language, so annoying further those who already considered that Sir Geoffrey had been shabbily treated.

The last Conservative to hold the post was Michael Heseltine. This was in July 1995, when the Heseltine forces turned to John Major rather than to John Redwood in the Tory election of that year. Lord Heseltine had, it appeared, made his peace with Sir John some months previously. There were hopes of happy unity in the party, which proved sadly unfounded.

Mr Brown will run his own government in his own way. No doubt he can make somebody or other Deputy Prime Minister for political convenience, to pay off a debt or for any other reason that appears good to him at the time. But I still retain a sentimental belief in the election of a deputy leader and a non-belief in the appointment of any Deputy Prime Minister. There is no reason to allow these posts to become muddled; no reason to have a Deputy Prime Minister at all.

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