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Wednesday, 8 December, 1999, 17:44 GMT
Prescott comes out fighting
John Prescott: Faced first attack from Michael Portillo

By political correspondent Nick Assinder

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott did not get his nickname "Thumper" for nothing.

He is famous for his feisty nature and his ability to fight his way out of a corner - and he fully lived up to his reputation during the Commons debate on transport.

He flew back to Britain from an official trip to India amid growing doubts about his long-term future.

The Tories were determined to pile on the pressure and had called a special debate with the sole aim of putting Mr Prescott on the spot over his transport policies.

But when the time came, the opposition failed to deliver any killer punches.

Mr Prescott's shadow John Redwood appeared not to have his heart in the debate and delivered a lacklustre and emotionless attack.

It was left to former minister Michael Portillo - making his maiden speech since he was re-elected to the Commons last month - to put the boot in.

But by then, Mr Prescott had done all he needed to see off the opposition assault.

Ebullient form

His performance helped dispel suggestions he is currently on the way out, but it did little to answer the longer-term questions over his position.

He was in ebullient form and made one of his best Commons performances.

He tore into the Tories' record on transport when they were in government and he slapped down shadow ministers and Tory MPs with equal ease when they tried to intervene telling them to shut up and sit down.

John Redwood: Accused of "bottling out" of confidence vote
He was helped by the fact that the Tories had originally suggested they were going to launch a vote of no confidence in him.

Even the greenest of politicians knows that the one way to ensure your opponent gets the full backing of his own side is to launch a vote of no confidence in him.

So, when the time came, there was no such move and the event turned into a straightforward debate.

Mr Prescott was even left to look on as it turned into part of the campaign for London mayor as two of Labour's would-be candidates - Frank Dobson and Ken Livingstone - used it to plug their policies.

Falling stock

The debate came against a background, however, that has seen Mr Prescott's political stock falling to an all time low.

He is under fire from all sides over his alleged failure to get to grips with the country's transport system, the U turn over Railtrack's involvement in the tube and the part-privatisation of the air traffic control system.

Tony Blair is said to be exasperated at Mr Prescott's performance and, notably, was not in the Commons chamber to listen to the debate.

Downing Street denied this was a snub to Mr Prescott and insisted the deputy prime minister had Mr Blair's full support.

But there is still widespread speculation that Mr Prescott will be moved after the next election and that his giant department of environment, transport and the regions will be broken up into more manageable chunks.

The debate also raised a question over John Redwood's position. He is one of the most able of William Hague's frontbenchers but missed a golden opportunity.

And, with Mr Portillo almost literally breathing down his neck, some have raised the possibility that he may soon be reshuffled to make way for the former minister.

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See also:
08 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Analysis: Prescott's problems
08 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Prescott's future in doubt
08 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Angry Prescott fights back

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