Thursday, August 19, 2004

Prescott starting to prepare for defeat

Blair to support regional assembly
by Peter Hetherington, regional affairs editorThursday August 19, 2004

The Guardian Tony Blair has agreed to throw his weight behind the drive for devolution in the north-east by launching the campaign for a yes vote in a forthcoming referendum alongside John Prescott.

Next month, before Labour's annual conference, the prime minister, long regarded as a devolution sceptic, will join his deputy and the chancellor, Gordon Brown, to push the case for an elected regional assembly, covering an area from Berwick to Middlesbrough.

If north-east electors back the plan in an all-postal poll on November 4, Mr Prescott announced yesterday that full-blown elections for a mini-parliament in the north-east could be held in two years' time.

The high-profile launch, probably in Durham, follows several meetings at Downing Street last month before Mr Prescott decided to drop plans for referendums in the north-west and Yorkshire at the eleventh hour, after pressure from hostile Labour MPs and several ministers.

Officially, the government said the referendums had been postponed to await the outcome of an Electoral Commission report on the practicalities of all postal-voting.

But with the north-east now out on a limb, the prime minister, who represents a County Durham constituency, agreed to publicly back Mr Prescott's plans for a north-east assembly broadly similar to that in London, with 25 members. This will be seen by devolution campaigners as a significant breakthrough.

Mr Brown, also initially sceptical, has decided to support Mr Prescott who has faced a long battle with cabinet colleagues and Downing Street policy advisers.

At Mr Blair's insistence, Mr Prescott's plans were given the go-ahead only after the deputy prime minister agreed that devolution must go together with local government reform.
As a result, if voters approve a north-east assembly on November 4, a tier of local government will be scrapped in counties to create all-purpose, or unitary, councils. For Mr Blair, this removes the argument of "No" campaigners that a north-east assembly will mean extra bureaucracy.

But yesterday, unveiling an information pack to be delivered next week to 1.2 million north-eastern households, Mr Prescott was cautious about the likelihood of a "yes" vote.
"An awful lot of people don't know a great deal about it, but there has long been a demand for people in the north-east to have their own say." He added that London, Wales and Scotland had been given their chance to vote on assemblies.

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