Prescott Defiant Over Anschutz Visits

U.K. deputy prime minister John Prescott is adamant he’s not resigning despite coming under fire for his secret meetings with U.S. billionaire Philip Anschutz.

He’s been faced with a barrage of questions from newspapers and Tory opposition MPs who want to know why he accepted Anschutz hospitality and didn’t tell the House Of Commons, which is being seen as a breach of U.K. political protocol.

At the time, Prescott was in charge of local government issues including the rejuvenation of inner cities. And Anschutz is known to want to open a super casino on London’s Millennium Dome site.

The beleaguered deputy leader has already been forced into one embarrassing U-turn: With what appears to be a degree of reluctance, he’s entered his stay at the American oil, railways, property, media and entertainment mogul’s 32,000-acre ranch in the House Of Commons Register Of Members’ Interests.

Maybe even more embarrassing for him was a July 8th front-page story in The Daily Telegraph claiming that what Prescott has described as “screaming and shouting in the press” caused Anschutz to pull out of a meeting the two were to have a few days later.

Prescott denied July 4th he should have declared his visits to the U.S. billionaire’s ranch because he claimed he was on official business. If that was the case, then it probably wouldn’t breach Section Five of the ministerial code that says: “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.”

He changed his mind within a couple of days as Sir Philip Mawer, the House Of Commons standards watchdog, followed up complaints from Tory opposition MPs by launching an enquiry into the whole business.

One of the complainants, Tory culture spokesman Hugo Swire, asked: “Why did the deputy prime minister, the second most powerful political figure in the land, have seven meetings with somebody who wants to bid for the only slot available for a regional casino?”

Anschutz is also expanding his entertainment business throughout Europe. He’s set up a London office and made strategic partnerships in Germany and Holland.

Apparently, Prescott visited the ranch because he enjoys watching cowboy films. Several U.K. papers quoted him telling BBC Radio 4’s John Humphrys on the “Today” program, “I was curious about it. I saw cowboy films over my younger years, didn’t you?”

On July 6th, most U.K. papers had a front-page picture of Prescott blowing a kiss to waiting journalists as he left prime minister Tony Blair’s 10 Downing Street offices.

On the same day, he told a BBC news program he still expected a Christmas card from Blair addressed to “The Deputy Prime Minister.” In other words, he intends to hold on to his job for at least another six months.

That could be tough as the media looks to be intent on giving him a verbal bashing equivalent to a head-butt from Zinedine Zidane.

In an editorial headed “The Pointlessness Of The Deputy Prime Minister,” The Daily Telegraph – often referred to as “The Torygraph” – said accepting “lavish hospitality from an American tycoon who might want to put a casino in London’s Millennium Dome further demeans him [Prescott] and public life.”

It also said his decision to declare the free stay in Colorado, three years after it happened and then only as a result of it being discovered, was like “putting money back in the till after being caught pilfering.”

Prescott had become a regular target for the Tories and the national papers that support them even before he was stripped of his workload – but not his Deputy PM title – and caught up in revelations that he had an affair with his former Whitehall secretary.

When Humphrys asked him about newspaper reports of “other affairs,” Prescott stopped a little short of an outright denial and said, “There’s no truth in much of the stories that are made in the papers.”

If he’s forced out of office, it could result in more of the Labour party calling for Blair to quit. The prime minister has already said he won’t seek a fourth term in office and many of his own party feel he should stand down now.

A decision on the location of the first super casino to be allowed under last year’s Gambling Act is expected by the end of 2006.

– John Gammon