What he said, what he omitted to say, and the question he dodged

Last updated at 13:43 07 July 2006

As Mr Prescott bumbled through his agonising 20-minute interview with John Humphrys, Labour MPs will have been listening carefully for messages and signals about his state of mind - and the truth about his now-infamous stay on billionaire Philip Anschutz's Colorado ranch - hidden in the typically mangled Prescott sentences.

Here, with apologies to the English language, JAMES CHAPMAN reports what the Deputy Prime Minister said - and the story behind some of his choicest remarks.

'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 … Here was a chance not just to sit in a hotel, go by the pool and do nothing, but learn a little bit more about some international kind of problems and talk to them about it in the context of in this case the ranch and on a farm.'

A floundering Mr Prescott is reduced to recasting himself as a cowboy fan as he struggles to justify his weekend on the Anschutz ranch - which has its own nine -hole golf course, hunting facilities and a health spa - as taxpayer-funded official business.

At the same time, he gives a startling insight into how he typically spends his weekends when 'working' abroad.

'The only time I met Mr Anschutz there (at the ranch) was at the dinner for two-and-a-half hours where no discussions took place about the Dome or planning or those matters, because they took place at our regular meetings when we were discussing the Dome.'

Invited by the billionaire owner of the Dome for dinner, Mr Prescott asks us to believe the main topic of conversation at dinner was the slave-trade abolitionist William Wilberforce.

He does admit, however, that he discussed the regeneration of the Dome during their other six meetings. His defence is that responsibility for planning decisions involving the site were handed over to junior ministers from 2002.

'I didn't know until later that the payment of it, and I always thought it was public payment, had gone by an arrangement of a payment to charity because they (the ranch) didn't want to receive a payment.

Now I just assumed that was the normal thing that went on. I now discover that it's not … Once we found that the charity was not seen as a payment for it then clearly you were into the issue of hospitality which led me to reassess it.'

Mr Prescott's stay was not declared at the time in the Register of Members' interests and could conflict with section 5.24 of the ministerial code, which insists that 'no minister or public servant should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear to, place him or her under an obligation'.

Members of the Government are normally required to register hospitality valued at more than £550. Mr Prescott contends that he did not know his department made an unspecified donation to a 7/7 charity from the public purse in lieu of payment. His claim that he believed the ranch stay had been paid for like a hotel, meaning it could not be classed as hospitality, stretches credulity.

'Here's a guy that comes along, buys the Dome, right, when everybody said it was a liability, now converting it into a very successful asset, was giving 24,000 new homes, 10,000 jobs, 400,000 commercial and retail space, five billion of private investment coming into the project, turning a poisonous bit of land into one of the best creates, recreates, regeneration that we have seen, developing East London to its advantage.

I tell you what, John, if he comes offering that deal, I will see him every three months … It's becoming the jewel of London.'

The Dome was an unmitigated disaster - attracting only half the expected 12million visitors and swallowing £600million of lottery cash - and Mr Prescott got the blame.

If a billionaire comes along with a plan to turn it round, he can expect to have the Deputy Prime Minister and his staff dancing to his tune. With its expensive new transport links, the area would have been prime for regeneration without the plans to turn the Dome into a leisure complex.

Later in the interview, Mr Prescott changed the figures around to insist the project would create '10,000 new homes, 24,000 new jobs'. Although the Government estimates that new office and retail space will ultimately bring more than 20,000 jobs to the area, only 800 are thought to have been created so far.

'I had no influence over the planning decisions in these matters, though ironically enough, the planning decision did-n't have to come to my department ' cos the local government made it.'

Mr Prescott was in charge of the department which then oversaw planning - the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Further questions were raised yesterday after it emerged that a month after he met Mr Anschutz, the department decided not to challenge planning permission given by the local council for the redevelopment of the Dome.

A parliamentary answer from Lord Rooker in 2003 said the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed the application would not be called in for his determination.'

His office insisted that had been a formal way of referring to his government department, rather than Mr Prescott himself.

'If you say to me, were there some civil servants down the line exercising some judgment about this in a view of the circumstances - I was not involved in it, didn't even know about it until I read in the press, totally reject any idea I expressed any pressure whatsoever.

The suggestion at the end of the day was my meeting with Mr Anschutz was somehow giving him preference for a bid. It was not, I did not get involved and there is no evidence to that fact at all.'

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act have shown that Mr Prescott's department was heavily involved in plans to build a supercasino at the Dome at the same time that he was holding regular meetings with Mr Anschutz.

The documents describe the first contacts between Mr Anschutz's company AEG and the Culture Department as a 'follow-up to their meeting with the deputy prime minister' - proof that officials, at least, believed Mr Prescott was paying a keen interest in the campaign to win a casino licence by AEG.

Mr Prescott claims that if civil servants were lobbying for the Dome casino project, they were acting entirely independently. But can we really believe they were completely uninfluenced by his close links with Mr Anschutz?

'What I say to colleagues, I bear in mind the point they're making. I am very sorry for what has happened. I do believe, in a way, it has not been good for my party or Government. Of course I am conscious of that.'

Mr Prescott is well aware that some Labour MPs now regard him not only as a laughing stock, but as a political liability.

By acknowledging and apologising for the damage he has done, he is pleading with them not to give him the boot.

'Others will have to make judgments… they will make it clear to me in one way or another and I have to take all these things into account.'

If Cabinet colleagues tell him his time's up, Mr Prescott effectively admits he knows he'll have to quit.


John Humphrys:
If there is a media storm against you, as you suggest, it's for a number of reasons apart from this. It began with the revelation of your affair with your secretary.

There are now reports, and they're circulating on the Internet, as you know, that you have had other affairs. Is that true?

John Prescott:
John, you're doing exactly what you read in the papers.

I asked you whether you'd had any other affairs apart from that which is the one we know about.

I've told you what the answer, I've given a statement about that. I made a mistake, I've owned up to me … that is life, and I've made a statement.

Have you had other affairs?

Hold on. I watched Newsnight last night and the press, as you know - most people don't - and it's called, I think it's called the Internet, isn't it, or blogs or something.

I've only just got used to letters, John, I haven't got into all this new technology, but I watched the guy on television last night who does that, saying I have no evidence for these allegations I've made.

So they're not true, are they?

There's no truth in much of the stories that are made in the papers …

So you have not had other affairs - I mean it's a quite straightforward question here.

Listen, you're talking about a lot of people here who have in fact denied these stories, names have been mentioned, some of them are in the process of perhaps suing about it.

I'm not going to get involved in that.

I have made my statement about making a mistake and I did all that, I'm leaving it at that, but I notice the guy who's making these allegations says there's no evidence for it.

So why are you justified to keep on trying to push this, that hurts so many people, and create it …

JH: (interrupts)
Because I wanted to give you the opportunity to clear it up for once and for all and say I made that mistake with that particular lady, I have had no other affairs.

I made my mistake and I've made my denials. It doesn't make any difference, of course, to what the press say, but I will keep on saying I'll get on with my job.

People must judge me on what I do on the job. I know that's controversial, I've been in a lot of controversial areas.

That's what I'm doing, John, that's what people expect me to do and I'll get on with doing my job and I'm not leaving it, I'm getting on with it.'

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