Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Blair and Brown are united for once: wounded Prescott must stay
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The Independent Online

It would be deeply ironic for John Prescott's long career to be brought to an end by his links with the US tycoon who took over the Millennium Dome at Greenwich. For the Dome would probably never have been built without Mr Prescott.

In a typical act of loyalty to Tony Blair, Mr Prescott bulldozed the project through an extremely reluctant Cabinet in 1997. The Prime Minister backed it but there were few other takers.

His deputy chaired the crucial meeting in Mr Blair's absence. "Tony wants it," he told ministers. If there had been a vote, the scheme would have been blocked. Mr Prescott did not call a vote. The Dome went ahead.

There have been plenty of times when Mr Prescott has batted for Mr Blair when he privately disagreed with him, notably on university tuition fees.

The Deputy Prime Minister has never been a good departmental minister. Dysfunctional Whitehall empires were twice bolted together to make them big enough for his ego. His grandiose £180bn transport plan hit the buffers and was quietly dropped.

Yet his deep Labour roots complemented Mr Blair's natural appeal to Middle England. If Labour required a conservative leader, it also needed a Labour deputy. It is a fair bet that the tensions between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown could have destroyed the Government by now if Mr Prescott had not acted as a referee trusted by both sides.

Mr Blair's genuine warmth towards his deputy explains why, even though Mr Prescott is clearly past his sell-by date, Mr Blair is reluctant to let him go. There is not yet a silver bullet amid the ammunition fired at Mr Prescott over his links with Philip Anschutz, who wants to open Britain's first supercasino at the Dome.

But the prospect of leaving Mr Prescott "in charge" when Mr Blair goes on his summer holiday fills some Blair advisers with horror. They are praying for a quiet August, not one in which the media vacuum is filled by a game of "get Prescott".

In fact, Mr Prescott's annual stint as "acting Prime Minister" is something of a charade. Modern communications allow Mr Blair to remain in constant contact with Downing Street. The truth is he remains in charge, but allows Mr Prescott his moment in the political sun while he enjoys the real one.

Mr Prescott's struggle for survival has added another layer to the already complicated machinations over Mr Blair's departure. If the Deputy Prime Minister resigns soon, it would endanger Mr Blair's plans to stay in Downing Street into next year.

Blair allies fear a powerful coalition could line up behind the view that, if there were an election for deputy Labour leader, then the top job should be sorted at the same time. Naturally the Brownites, who want Mr Blair to quit sooner rather than later, would be part of that coalition. More dangerously for Mr Blair, so could a lot of mainstream Labour MPs.

The Prime Minister, I am told, has not yet settled on his preferred departure date. He has not signed up to the "spring 2007" scenario which most Labour MPs expect. He may want to carry on until the autumn of next year, longer than the Brown camp wants.

However, Mr Prescott's departure would not necessarily be good news for Mr Brown. In theory, he could quit as Deputy Prime Minister to spare the Government's blushes and rumble on as deputy Labour leader until Mr Blair quits. The idea attracts some senior Labour figures. But others say if he were no longer fit for his "DPM" tag, why would he be fit for high office in the governing party?

Labour's rules allow the deputy leadership to be left vacant - but only until the party's next annual conference, in September. Alternatively, the Cabinet can appoint an acting deputy leader. But that would cause an interesting debate since several of its members fancy the job and would be wary of installing a rival, who would then be in pole position to win the eventual contest. It would not be in Mr Brown's interest to see an early contest for the No 2 job while Mr Blair clings on to the No 1 berth. Such an election might encourage Mr Blair to stay on even longer. Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, is urging him to tell critics: "You want a date? I'll give you a date - in 2008."

Moreover, an election for deputy might allow the winner to emerge as a possible challenger for the top job. The man to watch would be Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, even though he sees himself as a No 2 rather than No 1. It won't happen, but ultra-Blairites can't resist teasing Mr Brown that a "stop Gordon" candidate might yet emerge. "Prescott's departure would be worse for Gordon than Tony," one said.

Several ministers suspect Mr Prescott's days are numbered. Yet there is no great clamour for him to go or stay. He may survive through a sense of inertia and exhaustion as the Government lumbers towards the finishing line of parliament's summer recess on 25 July.

Mr Prescott is a wounded animal. But if no one lands a killer blow, he might limp on for longer than we expect. Not for the first time, Mr Blair and Mr Brown, coming from different directions, have arrived at the same point.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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