Prescott: 'This is your only chance'
by Chris Lloyd
THERE will be no second opportunity for the North-East if it votes no to an elected regional assembly, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott warned yesterday.
In combative mood following the publication of The Northern Echo's exclusive Mori poll which revealed No leading by seven per cent, Mr Prescott said: "If it fails here, we won't be back for a considerable period of time."
Mr Prescott, the architect of the devolution plans, was speaking in Darlington Market Place during a whistlestop tour of the Tees Valley in his Prescott Express bus.
"This opportunity may be the last for a decade," he said. "It is up to the people of the North-East to decide whether to go with the building blocks they have got now."
The mood of the campaign noticeably changed yesterday. Minds were focussed as the Royal Mail started delivering the first of the 1.9 million ballot papers for November 4's referendum, and the Echo's poll, conducted by Mori among 1,013 people, showed Yes lagging by 42 per cent to 35 per cent.
The gap was even wider among those who said they were certain to vote: 54 per cent against the assembly and only 31 per cent in favour.
But while Mr Prescott's message was very serious, elsewhere the campaign descended into farce.
In Durham City, the Yes campaign unveiled Shameless, who is one of the R.A.T.S. - "rather arrogant toff southerners" - in a bid to paint the No campaign as a pack of Tory outsiders.
Shameless immediately came face-to-face with the No campaign's giant inflatable white elephant - a symbol of what No says the assembly will become.
Addressing shoppers at Darlington's Monday market, Mr Prescott bellowed: "I see on the front page of The Northern Echo it tells us what the Mori poll says, but inside in its editorial, having looked at the details of what we're offering, it says 'we'd like more - well, that's always the case, everyone would like more - but we believe the people should be voting yes'.
"Now it's your decision, your say. The people of the North-East will make their own decision.
"That's what devolved democracy means. If you don't want it (the assembly), we drop it. But you have to positively vote for it."
Mr Prescott said the vote in the North-East "has never been overwhelming" in favour of an assembly, and he said that if it failed, Yorkshire and the North-West would not be offered referendums.
He said: "That's why it is so crucial in the North-East for the North. A Yes here could encourage a major devolution right across the north regions - but you've got to win here."
Accompanied by the North Tyneside MP and former Cabinet minister, Stephen Byers, Mr Prescott found some solace in the reaction of shoppers in the market place.
"I didn't find anybody who didn't know the referendum was going to take place," he said. "So the debate has begun in real earnest. When I started this, people were saying they were not interested, but that is no longer the case."
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