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Friday, October 2, 1998 Published at 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK

Prescott sends them home smiling

Deputy PM John Prescott takes the applause of the Labour conference

By Nick Assinder in Blackpool

Tony Blair wheeled out his secret weapon against the dissidents in New Labour at the final session of the party conference - by unleashing his deputy John Prescott on the delegates.

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The firebrand of Old Labour can always be relied on to win over members fearful that the party has abandoned all its old principles.

And Friday's speech was no exception. It was littered with jokes about Viagra, Virgin railways, fat cat bosses and fish and chips.

Move over Manning

In a performance that would have done any stand up comedian proud, he launched a series of hilarious jibes at the creators of New Labour - notably Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson and even Tony Blair himself.

In a style that echoed Les Dawson or a politically correct Bernard Manning, he laid into Richard Branson for the shambles of his rail service which had brought delegates and ministers to Blackpool, suggesting he would do better with a balloon service.

He reminded Peter Mandelson that he once mistook mushy peas for avocado dip - allegedly.

And he insisted he HAD cracked a joke in his previous conference speech when he described the prime minister as a socialist.

He even urged Chancellor Gordon Brown to finally grasp the nettle and name the day he would marry his long-term girlfriend Sarah MacCauley.

He praised veteran left-winger Dennis Skinner to the skies and won him a standing ovation, even though he was not in the hall.

Prescott with a pig's bladder

If anyone else had made the same jokes at their leaders' expense there would have been a knock on their door in the middle of the night.

But not only does John Prescott get away with it, that is exactly what he is there for. As Mr Blair had earlier suggested, he is to the prime minister what the joker wielding a pig's bladder was to the Court.

He pricks their pomposities and serves as a great release valve for those feeling any resentment or hostility towards their leaders.

And there were certainly enough of those around during the week, which started on a seriously bad note for Mr Blair.

He saw a number of hard-left delegates elected to the party's ruling executive, was forced to suffer a series of attacks from union bosses concerned about economic policy, and had to use all his powers of persuasion to stop the conference committing the government to the current system of voting at elections.

Things started to get better as the week wore on. His rallying speech was well received, veteran lefty Dennis Skinner was ditched from the executive and he saw off attempts to renationalise the railways.

A smile on their faces

But even on the last day, there was a reminder of some of the concerns amongst delegates.

When pensioner Teddy Edwards was called to the platform to accept a cherished merit award, he used his speech to demand higher taxes not just on the rich, but on everyone.

But then the deputy prime minister took to the stage and all was forgotten as he delighted the delegates with one of his most accomplished, irreverent and furiously funny speeches ever.

Everyone left the Winter Gardens with a smile on their faces and with the divisions temporarily forgotten.

And once again, Tony Blair put Mr Prescott back into his arsenal for certain use at a future party conference.

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