"Mr Prescott conceded that defeat in the North-East would stop the idea of English devolution in its tracks."
Prescott's English devolution dream gets wake-up call
By Brendan Carlin
John Prescott has conceded that his dream of English devolution could disappear for years after an opinion poll showed that his regional assembly plans were likely to fall at the first hurdle.
The Deputy Prime Minister effectively confirmed that defeat in the North-East referendum now under way could sideline his assembly plans for a decade.
Postal ballot papers went out yesterday to 1.9 million voters in the North-East as part of the first referendum outside London on setting up a region-wide mini-parliament.
The result of the referendum, which closes on Nov 4, will set the agenda for Mr Prescott's drive to narrow the North/South divide by creating directly elected regional assemblies to boost regional economies, housing and transport needs.
The North-East was picked by Mr Prescott as the English region most likely to vote Yes and complete the devolution settlements already reached in Scotland, Wales and London.
Earlier plans for referendums in Yorkshire and the North-West were shelved this summer, ostensibly over postal ballot problems but effectively because Mr Prescott realised that both regions would vote down his plans.
A Mori opinion poll revealed yesterday that even in the North-East region Mr Prescott was heading for defeat.
The poll, commissioned by the Northern Echo, showed that among the 44 per cent of people certain to vote, 54 per cent said they would vote No and only 31 per cent were in favour. Even when voting intentions were not taken into account, the No lobby had a seven per cent majority over Yes voters.
The Mori poll, based on consulting 1,013 people across the region, is the most comprehensive survey of opinion on Mr Prescott's devolution plans yet undertaken in the North-East.
The results, with most people expected to return their postal ballot forms within the next few days, have privately dismayed the pro-assembly campaigners who fear that their region is ill-served by control from Westminster.
Michael Howard, the Tory leader, who visited Newcastle upon Tyne yesterday, declined to make capital out of the poll result. But it delighted both the Tories and the official No campaign, who have condemned the assemblies as unnecessary white elephants and talking shops with no real new powers.
Mr Prescott, a lifelong advocate of devolving power from Whitehall, made no attempt to dismiss the poll's findings.
At the start of a Yes campaign sweep through the North-East in his Prescott Express battlebus, he admitted: "You cannot ignore it."
He insisted that there was still "all to play for" and referendums in Yorkshire and the North-West were still possible before the general election expected next May.
He also claimed that the North-East assembly plans, including the potential scrapping of the traditional county council structure, would save up to £12 million a year as there could be about 300 fewer councillors and nine fewer councils. But after meeting people in Darlington, Mr Prescott conceded that defeat in the North-East would stop the idea of English devolution in its tracks.
Even in the North-East, "the opportunity may be the last for a decade" and this region was the one which could set in chain "a major devolution [drive] right across the Northern regions".
He added: "If you did not do it here, you would not want to be trying to rush another one. That's why it is so crucial in the North-East."
Mr Prescott, who was accompanied by the former Cabinet minister Stephen Byers, said he had met more pro- than anti-assembly voters among the public.
However, The Telegraph, speaking both to people Mr Prescott had met as well as other passers-by, found no one positively in favour of the assembly plan. Four people - three of them Labour voters - were determined to vote against.
In the marketplace, Mr Prescott was told by people that the Government should look to improving local councils and fighting crime rather than embarking on a regional government experiment.