Steve Richards: Mr Prescott has one final role to perform... resign his office as Deputy Prime Minister

Harriet Harman is putting herself forward while being adamant that she is doing nothing of the sort
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There is intense speculation that the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, is soon to spend more time with his croquet or whatever interests he will enjoy in political retirement. Several normally loyal Labour MPs call for him to go. Peter Mandelson suggests diplomatically and yet with words full of meaning that Mr Prescott will act in the interests of his party as he always does. Meanwhile the battle to succeed him is under way.

Harriet Harman told me on GMTV at the weekend that a woman must be the next deputy leader, although she argues the need for two deputies. This is pushing it a bit. The Conservative leader has no deputy and seems to survive. Other Labour leaders have managed sometimes with a single insignificant deputy. Still, Ms Harman plays a clever game with her proposal. If it does not find acceptance, she can step forward at a later date and be more specific: if there is, regretfully, only one deputy, it must be a woman and I am offering my services. Currently Ms Harman is putting herself forward while being adamant that she is doing nothing of the sort.

From his semi-exile in Northern Ireland, Peter Hain is making sure he does not lose touch with the party. However inconvenient his ministerial portfolio, Mr Hain is good at staying in touch. I recall when he was minister for Europe, he found reasons for spending the entire week at the TUC annual conference. Brussels would have to wait while Mr Hain formed strong alliances with senior trade unionists. Those alliances are still in place.

Mr Hain looks on more anxiously at the parliamentary party, where the new Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, is making many friends. Mr Johnson is a former trade unionist. That does not necessarily guarantee a lifetime of goodwill from his former colleagues, and can sometimes lead to the opposite. Mr Hain is more confident of trade union support, but worries about Mr Johnson's impact on MPs.

The new Leader of the House, Jack Straw, would like to throw his hat in the ring. Mr Straw is what is known as a "party man". Even as Foreign Secretary, he would head back to his Blackburn constituency at every available opportunity. He is ready to do his bit for the party across the country if his party would let him.

The deputy leadership contest will be an event of huge symbolic importance. Labour needs to show that it can hold real meaty contests. Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have held such contests in recent months. Although both were eccentric, they were genuine political battles. Labour has had no contest since 1994. There is a need for debate about the future direction of the party, one that goes beyond the puny exchanges about the need to be "radical", and focuses instead on what it means to be radical and progressive.

The contest for leader will not provide such a battle. It is over already. Gordon Brown will win. Some ultra-Blairite columnists still look tirelessly for an alternative candidate, but they do so in vain. The fashion at the moment is to project Mr Johnson as the next Prime Minister. If I were Mr Johnson I would be a little worried. Past alternative candidates include David Blunkett, Alan Milburn, Steve Byers and Charles Clarke. All of them already spend more time with their croquet or equivalent post-Cabinet passions.

There is a theory that Mr Brown assassinates any potential leadership candidate. Indeed it is a theory held by some of the former ministers. Mr Byers used to have nightmares in which he was confronted by the Chancellor and his entourage in an underground car park and, without going into the gory details, did not emerge alive. But although the Chancellor has not gone out of his way to promote rivals, the gruesome theory does not stand up to scrutiny. Most of the Blairite stars have faded carrying out duties with an unquestioning enthusiasm for their master in Downing Street.

I suspect that Mr Johnson will be in for a similarly hard time when the zany Schools Bill is implemented. After all the trumpeting of the supposedly historic proposals, many parents will get a shock when they do not get their first "choice" of secondary school. Expect appeals galore and reports of chaos. For several reasons, Mr Johnson will be better placed to battle it out for the deputy leadership.

Indeed Mr Brown should relax a little more. He enters the least complicated phase of his high wire act. At last there is no pretence any more. He is the Prime Minister in waiting. Until recently he was scared to say anything interesting in case it was perceived as being a challenge to Mr Blair. Now he can speak out in a new context in which everyone knows Mr Blair will be leaving before very long.

I assume Mr Brown is not relaxed because he gave his views recently on the rock band Arctic Monkeys, implying he listened to them at breakfast time. As someone who does listen to the Arctic Monkeys, I can confirm that their debut album is loud at times, as the Chancellor observed. Indeed he was inadvertently on to something. The Libertines managed to be loud without drowning out their compelling melodies.

In my view the Arctic Monkeys lose their melodies when they pump up the volume. Still I cannot imagine having this conversation with Mr Brown. I do not believe he knows his Arctic Monkeys from his Libertines. If he wants to succeed as a leader, Mr Brown must stick with his own authentic voice and not seek to become what he is not.

No one can accuse Mr Prescott of acquiring an inauthentic voice. He is in trouble for other reasons. The photographs showing him on the croquet lawn imply that Mr Prescott is lazy. This is a wrong assessment. Those who work with him tell me he is not lazy enough. He has suffered at times from not seeing the wood for the trees, agonising over tiny planning decisions while supposedly shaping big policies.

On another level, Mr Prescott is aware his authority has been fatally undermined, partly by his own recklessness. I am told he is both depressed and fuming, alarmed that he has become a problem for his party rather than part of the solution as it seeks a so-called smooth transition from one leader to another.

Yet Mr Prescott still has a final role to perform. It would be much smoother for Labour if a deputy leadership contest coincided with the change at the top. The contest must be seen as part of a new era rather than as another distraction now. Therefore Mr Prescott should make the sacrifice of standing down as Deputy Prime Minister shortly but remain the elected deputy leader until Mr Blair resigns. In ways that he did not expect, Labour's future is dependent still on Mr Prescott making the right moves.