by Stephen Tall on July 7, 2006
I guess I have to own up to some level of responsibility for John Prescott becoming Deputy Prime Minister: I voted for him in 1994 to become Labour’s deputy leader.
When Mr Prescott was last assailed by his critics, I stuck up for him. Whether he has had one extra-marital affair, or simply worked his way through the Labour Party’s membership list, is a matter for Mr and Mrs Prescott to resolve. It has no bearing on the Deputy Prime Minister’s pitiful failure ever to get to grips with his ministerial duties, whether at transport, environment, housing or local government.
Those now-infamous political bloggers giving Mr Prescott so much gyp, Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes, like to claim there is some public interest underpinning their gossip. It’s utter toss, and I’m sure they know it. Let’s just accept we English relish a good snigger at ‘down below’ activities, and the more self-important the VIP publicly embarrassed the better.
But my sympathy for Mr Prescott – and the unpleasant snobbery meted out to him by our ugly right-wing press and their attack dog pundits – has been exhausted by his decision to stay at the ranch of Philip Anschutz, the owner of the Dome who wants to be allowed to set up Britain’s first super casino on the site.
Fortunately for Mr Prescott, he has been acquitted by the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, the foreman of the commentariat-jury:
His defence – and, for now, it seems to be a pretty solid one – is that all times he got his permanent secretary’s approval – and that he separated himself from decisions about the casino bid. Until someone proves that he knew something or that he was lying, I think he is on safe ground.
Just as the Daily Mail’s attempt to blacken Mr Prescott’s character with a thousand smears is too try-hard, Mr Robinson’s plea of mitigation lets the Deputy Prime Minister off-the-hook too easily. Paragraphs 1.3 and 1.5 (f) of the Ministerial Code of Ethics (Part I) could not be clearer:
[1.3] Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the Code and for justifying their actions and conduct in Parliament. The Code is not a rulebook, and it is not the role of the Secretary of the Cabinet or other officials to enforce it or to investigate Ministers although they may provide Ministers with private advice on matters which it covers.
[1.5 (f)] Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests.
There is no wriggle-room in the Code for Mr Prescott to hide behind the skirts of his permanent secretary: it is Mr Prescott’s responsibility, and his alone, to ensure that no member of the public – and no business rival to Mr Anschutz – could reasonably infer a conflict of interest might have arisen. Our Deputy Prime Minister treated this bond of trust with contempt.
In his revealing interview with John Humphreys on BBC Radio 4’s The Today Programme, yesterday, Mr Prescott defended his seventh meeting with Mr Anschutz:
JP: He knew I was in America and he said would you like to come and see a cattle ranch, which I was very much interested in, and also I said I wanted to talk to farmers, which I did, about the Doha, the negotiations, sugar beet industries, agriculture subsidies. … And so that is why I took that opportunity, probably not only to look at a working cattle ranch but to visit one, I’m curious about it, I saw the cowboy films over my young years, didn’t you? I was interested to have a look at it.
JH: Why should the British taxpayer pick up the bill for you, and indeed your officials, going to stay with a very rich man to indulge your interest in cattle and cowboys?
JP: Well, I didn’t say it’s, er…as to whether the charity money should be used, that’s a legitimate point made, and um, I, I never got into the details of it, I just assumed all those matters of paying for accommodation wherever they were made was cleared and arranged by the department and that’s what happened, and you’re quite right to raise that question, but in fact it wasn’t one that was put to me.
The faux-jokey blokeyness (“I saw the cowboy films over my young years, didn’t you?”) is plain embarrassing; the displacement of personal responsibility (“you’re quite right to raise that question, but in fact it wasn’t one that was put to me “) utterly breathtaking. To fail to declare the trip in the Register of MPs’ Interests, until the story broke, should have triggered Mr Blair to call time on his deputy’s booze-up in the last chance saloon.
Mr Prescott should, quite simply, have known better: enjoying the hospitality of Mr Anschutz might not have been improper; that does not mean it was right. I don’t expect Mr Prescott to have 20/20 hindsight, but 20/200 foresight would be nice.
The Deputy Prime Minister has shown himself to be a rank hypocrite; and anyone who thinks that verdict unduly harsh should imagine what Mr Prescott would have said about this story if it had involved a Tory. Actually, we don’t have to imagine. Here’s how he barn-stormed the 1996 Labour Party conference:
They are up to their necks in sleaze. The best slogan he could think up for their conference next week is, ‘Life’s Better Under The Tories’. Sounds to me like one of Steven Norris’s chat up lines. Can you believe that this lot is in charge? Not for long, eh? Then after 17 years of this Tory government, they have the audacity to talk about morality. Did you hear John Major on The Today Programme? – calling for ethics to come back into the political debate? I’m told some Tory MPs think ethics is a county near Middlesex. It’s a bit hard to take: John Major – ethics man. The Tories have redefined unemployment they have redefined poverty. Now they want to redefine morality. For too many Tories, morality means not getting caught.Morality is measured in more than just money. It’s about right and wrong. We are a party of principle. We will earn the trust of the British people. We’ve had enough lies. Enough sleaze. (Hat-tip: Iain Dale.)
Enough, John. Enough.