Mr Prescott, a problem turning into a solution

'Prescott has an increasing opportunity to play an almost Whitelaw-like role in the Blair constellation'
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The Independent Online

John Prescott will be greeted with jubilation by the Labour Party conference in Brighton when he speaks today. He always is. Moreover, he basks in the warm and evidently sincere encomium to him uttered by Tony Blair on Tuesday. But this will be more than a mere turn on the final day of conference, to expunge the memory of last night's defeat over pensions. John Prescott now matters a great deal to the party.

John Prescott will be greeted with jubilation by the Labour Party conference in Brighton when he speaks today. He always is. Moreover, he basks in the warm and evidently sincere encomium to him uttered by Tony Blair on Tuesday. But this will be more than a mere turn on the final day of conference, to expunge the memory of last night's defeat over pensions. John Prescott now matters a great deal to the party.

To judge the relative power of a politician to get his way, the crude rule of thumb is to imagine the possibility, however remote and unstated, of his or her leaving the Government, whether voluntarily or not. Gordon Brown, for example, has much more than an edge over Peter Mandelson, who, after all, has left the Government once already without it falling to its knees. The Northern Ireland Secretary's power within the Government is substantial; but it depends almost totally on the patronage of his friend the Prime Minister.

In Gordon Brown's case, in contrast, it is virtually impossible to imagine his departure not inflicting catastrophic and quite possibly terminal damage to Labour's hard-won economic credibility. This is so obvious that it makes it easy to overlook the status of John Prescott, the one other politician whose departure could be highly threatening to the leader, always supposing the leader wanted it to happen, which he patently doesn't.

This has little to do with his swanky title of Deputy Prime Minister. It has everything to do with the fact that he is deputy leader of the Labour Party. If cast out of the Government, John Prescott would not simply become a humble backbencher. Aside from Mr Blair, he is the only directly elected officer of the party. He has his own mandate, of which the hugely enthusiastic applause he will surely receive today will be an appropriate reminder. He is an ex-officio member of the National Executive Committee, a body that he could no doubt, if outside the tent, turn into something more menacingly independent of the leadership.

That isn't going to happen. It's not simply that one of the reasons for the increasing trust that Blair puts in his deputy is precisely that he isn't after his job; it is also that the two men appear as comfortable with each other as at any time since Tony Blair himself backed him as the deputy leader in 1994.

John Prescott is no high priest of New Labour. But he no longer seems in ideological or personal conflict with those who are. He is much less likely to worry about being excluded from this or that strategy meeting than he was in the early days of Tony Blair's leadership. His elevation to the mysterious brotherhood of Cabinet big beasts is no longer remotely in doubt. His latent institutional power strengthens his hand in dealing with his colleagues. If John Prescott upbraids a fellow-minister for a misjudgement, he does so with his own authority as well as that of the Prime Minister.

His power is not, of course, as great as the Chancellor's. But it is real, and it is boosted by another strength, which is that he doesn't brief and bitch against his colleagues, or allow others to do so on his behalf.

Instead his role in the most famous dysfunctionality within the Cabinet has, if anything, been the thoroughly grown-up one of pouring high-performance oil on troubled waters. When Peter Mandelson's suggestion at the weekend that the Government had appeared hard-faced in dealing with unrest over fuel was plausibly seen as a thinly veiled attack on Gordon Brown, it fell to John Prescott to explain that he had merely been describing a public perception. The point is not so much whether this was accurate, but that Mr Prescott immediately moved to contain a problem that could have easily spiralled out of control.

He may now have to do more. The personal quarrels within the Cabinet - as opposed to ideological quarrels, of which there are virtually none - may well be exaggerated by the almost inexhaustible media appetite for reporting them. They have certainly been fuelled by the number of books - unprecedented in any administration - seeking to chronicle history almost as it happens. And it may also be the case that if, say, Peter briefs against Gordon, or Gordon's chums brief against Peter, each camp has convinced itself that it is only retaliating against the other. But the party hates it.

This week's conference opened on a jittery note on account of the party's falling behind the Tories in the polls for the first time in eight years. It regained its nerve on the first day, almost entirely because of a speech - one of the most brilliantly authoritative that formidable speaker has ever made - by the Chancellor. And thanks to Blair's speech on Tuesday, the party faithful are now girded for the battle ahead. But they will not thank those at the top of their party if the backbiting is seen to start again once they have returned from Brighton. And it may fall to John Prescott to use all the plain-speaking eloquence he will summon in public today to remind his two colleagues bluntly, in private, that there is a war on.

For it is possible that the appearance, however magnified in the reporting, of conflict at the top will actually limit the scale of the recovery in the polls that most delegates now believe - with reason - that they have the right to expect. The rank and file are not alone in wanting to punish disunity. Yesterday's passionate conference debate on pensions, bringing with it the acrid whiff of the Labour conferences we used to love to hate, was not merely good theatre.

It is true that the debate was an expression of something real: a deep anger at the impact of a nugatory 75p increase on pensioners who are anything but prosperous. But the demand for relating pensions to earnings, not prices, is misguided; there is nothing inherently socialist in pouring billions of public money into the hands of genuinely prosperous pensioners.

Whether or not the decision to face the unions down - and therefore risk a conference defeat - was reinforced by Gordon Brown's return from Prague, is not finally the point. It is the unions who are to blame for embarrassing the party - an unfortunate reminder of the power their block votes still command. And yet, if the implicit promises by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister of righting the real wrongs are fulfilled, then the debate may become a relatively distant memory sooner than it seemed last night. If it persists, the incubus of feuding at the top may prove much more difficult to unload.

John Prescott is in a strong position to perform the healing role. He represents, more fully than any other minister, that constituency of hard-working party activists who yearn for pre-election unity. He is essentially disinterested, trusted by Blair but not, unlike the feuding princes, engaged in a battle for his ear. Powerful and mellowed, Prescott has an increasing opportunity to play an almost Whitelaw-like role in the Blair constellation. Having been - unfairly - depicted at the height of the public furore over transport last year as a problem, he is now beginning to look increasingly like a solution.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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