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Thursday, July 29, 1999 Published at 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK


UK Politics

Prescott's 'spy in the cab'

Sorting out the transport crisis

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Gus Macdonald may have been landed with one of the most unenviable jobs in British politics.

The Labour lord has been sent to John Prescott's massive Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions at a vital time.

Transport is one of the most difficult portfolios in government and Mr Prescott has taken a huge amount of flak for failing to deliver on his promises.

Lord Macdonald is clearly expected to sort it out and his appointment is hugely significant.

He has no particular experience of transport issues but is known as a great communicator. He will be charged with the task of putting across the positive government message on transport.

As Shadow Transport Secretary John Redwood put it, he will be Tony Blair's "spy in the cab" to keep an eye on Mr Prescott and try to whip up some good publicity for the department.

No cash

Mr Prescott is notoriously bad at delivering his message and Lord Macdonald will be expected to take over from him in the TV and radio studios.

Critics immediately claimed that the appointment was another sign that the government was still unprepared to give Mr Prescott the cash he requires to get to grips with the country's transport crisis but simply wants to spin its way out of the mess.

The move could also stoke up future problems for the government. Mr Prescott will not take kindly to any suggestion that he needs a minder and will not easily hand over any responsibilities to Lord Macdonald.

Mr Blair had been widely rumoured to be considering a major shake-up at the DETR, possibly removing one of its briefs.

Mr Prescott will be relieved that his huge department has been left intact but may find Lord Macdonald's appointment difficult to swallow.

The Tories lost little time in seizing on the appointment as a sign that there will be no changes in the government's much-criticised transport policies.

Power curbed

Mr Redwood said: "I doubt if Lord Macdonald will be able to wrestle the wheel away from John Prescott.

"Watching the two of them fighting for control of Labour's integrated juggernaught is not a pretty sight - they'll take up too much road space leaving us with jams today and jams tomorrow."

Meanwhile, Mr Prescott's power base was undermined as the prime minister removed two of his closest allies from his department.

Alan Meale and Dick Caborn were both removed from the department in a move seen as a calculated attempt by the prime minister to weaken Mr Prescott.

He did much the same in the last reshuffle when he destroyed Chancellor Gordon Brown's power base by moving key "Brownite" ministers.



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