John Prescott to run for party treasurer

Former deputy PM wants to tackle the difficult task of improving Labour’s finances.

John Prescott has announced that he is seeking nominations to become treasurer of the Labour Party when the newly elected MP for Birmingham Erdington, Jack Dromey, vacates the position at the conference in September.

It is a surprising decision on Prescott's part, considering he is nearly 72 and is expected to be named a life peer in Gordon Brown's forthcoming resignation honours list. The position of party treasurer is usually a stepping stone to greater prominence, Bevan, Callaghan and Foot all having contested it in their time, rather than a cushy retirement number for a former cabinet minister.

This is not an honorary title with attractive perks, but a challenging and relatively low-profile seat on the committee that must steer Labour back into power. Yet here is Prescott, putting himself forward for what could be the biggest challenge of his political career -- that of attracting donors to fill Labour's empty coffers.

The cost of this month's general election, in votes and in cash, will make the task very difficult.

There is no political or personal gain for Prescott in this position. It carries no salary. So we can only assume that his motives stem from loyalty to the party. Prescott has pointed out that he has long experience both in and out of government, and there's no doubt he would make an energetic fundraiser.

His own account of his activism during the election demonstrates that he is not ready to retire yet, and still has a vision for the future of the Labour Party:

During the general election I travelled 5,000 miles on my Prescott Express battle bus, campaigning for candidates in more than 70 constituencies . . . It became very clear to me during my journey that we have an enormous job to do in rebuilding our party, reconnecting with the electorate and getting Labour ready as an effective opposition party and the next government-in-waiting.

If he is successful in rejuvenating the party's finances, he will ensure that it won't be for just Jags and punches that he's remembered.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.