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The BBC's Nicholas Jones
"For months now he's been mauled by the media"
 real 28k

Transport Minister Lord Macdonald
"It's a big department but John Prescott is a big man"
 real 28k

Guardian political editor Michael White
"There is a certain amount of anti-Prescott snobbery"
 real 28k

Labour MP Alan Meale
"It's John's turn - it just seems to be John's turn a lot of the time"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 8 December, 1999, 11:45 GMT
Prescott's future in doubt
John Prescott took a car for 200 yards at party conference


By political correspondent Nick Assinder

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has returned from India amid mounting speculation about his future.

The Tories are staging a Commons debate determined to put the beleagured minister on the spot over his much-criticised transport policies.

Mr Prescott will put up a spirited fight and Downing Street has thrown its full weight behind him.

But there is little doubt that his long-term future is still in doubt.

Tony Blair is said to be so dismayed at his performance that he has already effectively stripped him of his role as his deputy.

Instead Chancellor Gordon Brown and Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson are virtually acting as joint deputies.

They will head the election campaign and are already included in decision making in Downing Street where Mr Prescott is excluded.

Despite the strained relationship between the two men, they are both very close to Mr Blair and are said to work well together.

The deputy prime minister has suffered a number of embarrassing setbacks over his key transport bill, the future of the London underground and house building proposals.

Two Jags

The Tories are determined to squeeze the maximum mileage out of his troubles, but he is also under attack from many on his own side for what they claim is a desperately poor Commons performance.

His "Two Jags" nickname and a series of PR disasters - such as his decision to drive 200 yards to make a speech at the party conference - have combined to undermine his credibility.

And there is now widespread talk in Westminster that the prime minister will be forced to move or even sack him after the next election.

Government is accused of being anti-car
Some are even whispering that the axe will have to fall before the poll so a replacement can salvage what little credibility is left in the government's transport policies.

Mr Prescott has been under constant fire and pre-election pledges to tackle congestion and pollution have led to him being accused of being anti-car.

Most recently he has been forced to promise an increase in road building in an attempt to head off criticisms about his plans to introduce congestion charging.

He made a U-turn over plans for a massive increase in house building in south east England.

And he has abandoned plans to give Railtrack the job of running part of the London underground system.

He is also facing a huge backbench revolt over his proposals to part-privatise the National Air Traffic Control system.

Sensitive issues

Much of Mr Prescott's troubles are not of his own making. He is simply carrying out government policy - a fact that Downing Street has been forced to confirm.

But his handling of such sensitive issues has been persistently criticised and undermined by his own behaviour.

The government has also been caught by surprise by how important the transport issue has become.

Many are now claiming that, once the issue was given prominence by ministers it was bound to escalate out of control as drivers, transport users and pedestrians all lobbied for their causes.

But it has left Mr Prescott with one of the most controversial government portfolios and, many claim he just is not up to the job.

His Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is also reckoned to be far too big for one minister to handle and it is highly likely it will be broken up.

Tube U-turn sparked criticism
There has been speculation about his future in the past and more than once he has attacked Downing Street insiders for allegedly briefing against him.

And there is undoubtedly still some of that going on. But the criticisms are now more serious and widespread.

Downing Street has been forced to back him, but few believe he can survive for long in his current post.

Powerful position

He rose to his powerful position because he was the one member of New Labour who could be relied upon to keep the old guard on side.

He has played that role for three leaders - Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair.

But some are now claiming that he has lost the trust of much of Old Labour.

His supporters argue, with some cause, that he is the subject of snobbery within the party because of his working class origins, his manner and his famously convoluted way of speaking.

But the key issue is whether the prime minister still believes he needs him and there is now a growing feeling within the party that he does not.

The transformation to New Labour is virtually complete, even within the unions and the constituency parties and, more importantly, Mr Prescott's negative qualities are seen to outweigh his positive ones.

It would be a tough decision for Mr Blair to dump him and he would face a backlash from some sections of the party.

But many are now convinced that Mr Prescott has finally outlived his usefulness.

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See also:
01 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Prescott defends tube 'U-turn'
29 Nov 99 |  UK Politics
Gear change pleases car lobby
01 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Labour MPs promise air traffic opposition

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