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Last Updated: Friday, 5 November, 2004, 01:29 GMT
Is this the end for regional devolution?
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

The voters' rejection of John Prescott's North East assembly project has probably hammered the final nail into the coffin of planned regional devolution.

John Prescott
Mr Prescott's proposals have been rejected
Mr Prescott had already been forced to "postpone" plans for similar referendums in other areas.

Thursday's vote - with 78% of ballots cast in the no camp - suggests there is no appetite for the idea even in the area where ministers believed there was the greatest local interest.

Few in Westminster now believe Mr Prescott's big idea will see the light of day again for the foreseeable future.

This always was the deputy prime minister's baby, with widespread suggestions the prime minister was only lukewarm in his enthusiasm for it.

So the defeat will be felt most by Mr Prescott and most believe Tony Blair will do little to revive his dream.

Internal warnings

The policy was included in the last election manifesto, but the seeds were firmly planted with Mr Prescott's White Paper in 2002.

He went on to nurse his fledgling project through its Commons stages in the belief it would grow up strong and independent.

But he was left watching in horror as it turned on him when the chips were down - and after he had lavished around 11 million on it.

First there was the recent humiliating climbdown over similar referendums in the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber.

Scottish parliament a success
The polls were abandoned - almost certainly for good - after it became clear the Electoral Commission was going to criticise all-postal ballots, and in the wake of internal warnings the votes could not be won just before a general election.

The referendum in the North East was allowed to go ahead simply because planning was so far forward, there appeared to be a local demand for it and, some believe, as a face saver.

Huge success

But as the campaign progressed, opposition appeared to grow and Labour bosses, despite throwing everything into it, became increasingly fearful it was heading for defeat.

Mr Prescott took up almost permanent residence in the region as he attempted to coax his project through to victory.

But there were suggestions that "help" from London undermined the notion that the assembly was all about devolution from the South East and a real attempt to offer local people a voice of their own.

Unlike Scottish devolution, which most believe to have been a huge success, this seemed to reflect the general apathy and even antipathy that originally greeted plans for Welsh devolution.

The campaign for a Welsh assembly was eventually won, but only after an intense campaign to win voters around, and a knife-edge vote.

Few now believe devolution will be back on the government's agenda any time soon - bad news for Mr Prescott who has devoted a great deal of energy to the project.

As he said himself: "If it fails here, we won't be back for a considerable period of time".

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