Monday, May 29, 2006


Has Prezza Run out of Rope?

Alastair Campbell once said that if a scandal continued to make headlines 12 days after it first broke, then the person at the heart of it should go. I think also of that wonderful sit-com In the Thick of It when Malcolm, the ferocious Campbell-alike character, drew the analogy on sacking a minister of that situation in Touching the Void when a roped montaineer falls over a precipice and the colleague to whom he is tied has to decide if and when to cut the rope. Has the time come for Tony to reach for his Swiss Army Knife?

There are plentiful grounds to suggest that he should and might well but this is not an easy one. Those of us not living in the Westminster village, often fail to realise how important are the perks of the job, especially to those MPs without office-hence the power of the whips over 'freebie' trips to conferences and study visits abroad. Following the affair with his diary secretary, Prezza was lucky to survive and Blair made a concession to party and public feeling by separating his deputy from his departmental resonsibilities. However, he retained his salary and his perks of office and this infuriated elements on the Labour back benches.

This issue has probably been simmering while Prezza has not been appearing on the front pages but yesterday we were treated to snaps of him playing croquet at the end of last week on the front lawn of his (retained) grace and favour residence, the 200 acre Dorneywood. Yes, not rugby league, but a limp wristed toff's game; and when he was supposed to be officially running the country while Tony was jetting to Washington. This proved more than enough to set off the chattering once again. The Financial Times reported the story as 'criticism' in the party; the Guardian's Michael Whitedid something similar but The Sun came right out and asked for his head, as did the Labour supportingDaily Mirror. The Mirror's Deputy Political Editor, Bob Roberts, claimed Blair canot sack Prezza as he was elected 'and it would start a contest about his own leadership'.

Michael White offered a more subtle and no doubt accurate explanation: Rule 4B 2e of the party constitution requires that the Deputy Leader 'is always a cabinet member'. He continues: 'Rules state that the cabinet could appoint a temporary deputy from its own ranks, but only until the next party conference staged a ballot.' So Blair, as I understand it, could sack him as deputy PM but not as Deputy Leader as this is an elected post not in his gift. It is hard to see Prescott staying on a deputy party leader if sacked as deputy PM but the Mirror has his camp saying that currently there is 'not a cat in hell's chance' of him resigning. Presumably the party could replace him but 'decapitation' would entail similar damage to the party as changing the leader himself and maybe hasten that eventuality. No wonder Blair('he has my absolute confidence') and Brown are rooting for him to stay and not just because of the 'official' unofficial reason that he is the only person trusted to mediate between the two.

If the only way he can go without unacceptable damage is for him to resign, this might explain why so many people are urging him to do so-Baroness Kennedy, Denis McShane, Christine Mc Caffery, Derek Wyatt and Martin Salter (key because he is a member of the committee which meets Blair regularly to discuss the PLP's worries), not to mention the insider Geoff Mulgan. Weighing in on his side have been Hilary Benn, his articulate PPS, Paul Clark and, more surprisingly another man well used to criticism, Ken Livingstone. So how about the man who is still rumoured to be close to Blair via regular phone calls, the former Prince of Darkness himself? I heard Peter Mandelson on Today this morning and his line was: 'John is a party man through and through and will always in the end act in the party's interest.' I think that delicately coded message means 'cut the rope now', don't you?

'John is a party man through and through and will always in the end act in the party's interest.' I heard it too, and gave it the same interpretation as you.
From what you quoted of Michael White isn't he trying to say that Blair can appoint a deputy party leader from the cabinet but that appointment will be temporary until the next Labour party conference?

Also do you know where I can find a copy of the Labour Party constitution? It may make interesting reading at this time.
Amazon UK have it listed but withn 'limited availability' so think it best to go direct to Labour Party the web reference of which is:
You could try giving their publications dept a ring. Alternatively any good library in a big town or city will stock it.
Alternatively, Ben, if you are so interested in the Party's constitution, you could join. The constitution is available free of charge to us. Incidentally, if Prescott were to resign as Deputy Leader of the Party (not Deputy Prime Minister, that is a Government appointment, not a Labour Party one) the constitutional position is that the NEC, not Blair, would appoint a temprorary replacement until the next Party Conference when an election would take place. My guess is that Blair, for obvious personal reasons, would not want to trigger that ballot, and would not push Prescott to resign this side of September.
It looks complicated: Blair can't sack Prescott as Deputy Leader, but he can, of course, sack him from the Cabinet; rule 4B 2e (which hitherto I didn't know about) seems to mean that if he resigns from the Cabinet he must also resign as Deputy Leader (but what if he doesn't? is it up to the NEC to remove him? how long would that take?); his resignation/removal would probably lead to a Deputy Leadership contest, and Blair doesn't want this since it could open the door to a Leadership contest. Radio 4 this morning suggested the strategy Blair might follow: keep Prescott in the Cabinet but strip him of Dorneywood and maybe some other "perks" (but presumably Blair can't take away Prescott's Cabinet salary) i.e. a public humiliation (another) but not a sacking. Incidentally - without excusing Prescott's behaviour - I'm sure Ken Livingstone has a point when he says that Prescott's social background and supposed "Old Labour" credentials (and not simply his manifest failings) are part of the reason why he is a particular bete noire of the Daily Mail. The degree of hatred by the Mail and the various Tory bloggers does not seem wholly rational.
The rule is a bit of a bugger for Blair as Prezza commands a place in the cabinet even ifhe is sacked as DPM. But, as I suggest in my post-JP is unlikely to carry on if TB wants him to stand down from both jobs. As you say, it would be very problematic if an election became necessary. Maybe throwing Dorneywood to the critical party wolves might assuage them for a while but realistically, the best 'party' option now is for Prezza to fold up his tent and steal away.
Skipper, I'm sure you're right that it is best for Prescott to resign; but I'm still not clear about the rule. Surely you don't mean Blair can sack Prescott as Deputy PM but can't sack Prescott from the Cabinet (because the rule says the Deputy Leader must be in the Cabinet)? I don't think the Labour Party rule-book can dictate British constitutional practice. I realise it's an entirely academic question because, of course, as you say, Prescott would stand down from both jobs if Blair asked him to. It's a bit like one of those puzzles about who is next in the line of succession if the US President, Vice-President, and Speaker of the House were all to die in horrible accidents (we can but hope). I think Blair must be able to sack him from the Cabinet (that's the British constitutional rule if not the Labour Party constitutional rule). But if he did not then resign as Deputy Leader - what then? As I say its only an academic puzzle.
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According to rule 4B2e, I think this is what the rule implies. Seems odd but the party's constitution has always been something of a rival to the PM's power. Remember the one about the conference being the 'parliament' of the party? When it clashed with the real parliament, it was ignored by Wilson leaving only the left as the supporters of the constitution. I suspect the same thing would happen today but, as you say, it won't come to that as Prezza will stand down if asked from both probably. This is what makes this issue more than usualy interesting. I'd put a tenner on him being gone by end of June.
I cannot conceive of any new development which may arise to push Prezza over the proverbial edge.

Also, surely it would be a sign of weakness for Blair to effectively demote his deputy barely two months after the biggest reshuffle of his nine-year tenure?
Yes, it would, but politically Blair is not very strong at the moment and if party pressure is strong enough he will have to give way. We'll see...
Have just seen the programme on Deputy PMs on BBC 4 and one pundit, I think Tony Howard, said Prezza had a powerful weapon in that he could threaten to resign if TB sacked him as DPM and that weould open up elections which might precipitate calls for him to allow a simultaneous contest for the leadership.
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