Sun, May 16, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Some prepping for post-Blair era

SCRAMBLING In a highly candid interview, John Prescott said that `plates appear to be moving' and ministers are getting in position for a new reality

AFP , LONDON

Protesters wearing Tony Blair masks hold banners during the prime minister's visit to a Jaguar car factory in Coventry, central England, Thursday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

British government ministers have begun to position themselves for a scramble to power in anticipation of Prime Minister Tony Blair leaving office, Blair's deputy said in an interview that was published on Friday.

The comments by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott mark the first time a senior member of Blair's team has talked openly about the possibility that the increasingly embattled premier could soon step down.

Prescott had parried a series of questions about Blair's future in his interview with the Times before making his statements, the newspaper reported in yesterday's edition.

"If I can make one last comment, I think it's true that when plates appear to be moving, everyone positions themself for it," Prescott said, in an allusion to the shift of continental tectonic plates.

"When there is that kind of movement, people inevitably do reposition themselves," the deputy prime minister said.

Asked whether this meant senior ministers were preparing themselves for post-Blair life, Prescott was surprisingly frank.

"Yes, people do talk about it and you get that discussion... every British prime minister goes eventually," he said, while insisting that there was no chance of a coup inside the ruling Labour party to remove the premier.

"Tony is not indifferent to the party, and everything. But it's entirely his decision, it's in his hands," Prescott said.

The comments will add fuel to speculation that Blair, increasingly pressured by events in Iraq and elsewhere, could either step down or be deposed by his principal Labour rival, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

Blair's popularity has slumped since he took Britain into the US-led war in Iraq.

Blair has faced public skepticism about his argument that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed an immediate threat to the West.

No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.

Continued unrest in Iraq, a scandal over alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners and other woes such as a U-turn over a referendum on the proposed new EU Constitution have also hit Blair.

According to one recent poll, the prime minister is now seen as such an electoral liability that Labour could only win the next general election if he were replaced with Brown, who is his chief finance minister.

Prescott is seen as fiercely loyal to Blair, and with his 66th birthday approaching later this month, has no prime ministerial ambitions of his own.

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