Prescott Comes out Guns Blazing as He Cites a Passion for a Cowboy Films as His Reason for a Visit to Ranch of US Tycoon

Article excerpt

Byline: By Tomos Livingstone Western Mail

Under-fire Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott yesterday apologised for embarrassing the Government as he faced a full inquiry from the Westminster sleaze watchdog - and repeated questioning about his private life.

The parliamentary commissioner for standards is to look into a visit by Mr Prescott to US billionaire Philip Anschutz's ranch.

Mr Prescott said he visited the businessman's Colorado ranch because he liked cowboy films and it had nothing to do with details of an application by Mr Anschutz to build a super-casino in the Millennium Dome.

He said he would not quit as Deputy Prime Minister and defended himself in a radio interview - but refused to answer questions on whether he had another extra-marital affair, apart from his admitted adultery with secretary Tracey Temple.

Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, seen by some as a potential successor to the Deputy Prime Minister, gave his backing to Mr Prescott yesterday, saying, 'John Prescott has always had my full support. I supported his campaign back in 1994 and he continues to have my support.'

But many Welsh Labour MPs are privately unhappy at Mr Prescott's continued survival, suggesting he has become an embarrassment to the party.

One described him last night as 'yesterday's man' and suggested he would have to be removed.

Chancellor Gordon Brown is thought to be keen to retain Mr Prescott in post, fearing that if he is fired the Prime Minister-elect may be lumped with a deputy he does not want.

The Deputy Prime Minister chose to be grilled on Radio 4's Today programme, where he said he was 'very sorry' about the damage done to the Government by the affair. But he strongly defended his contacts with Mr Anschutz and denied any suggestion of improper influence.

'I will get on with doing my job and I am not leaving it; I am getting on with it,' Mr Prescott said.

'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. When I get involved, as I have been in these incidents, I am extremelysorry.'

Mr Prescott confirmed he had met Mr Anschutz - who acquired the lease for the Dome in 2002 - seven times over a three-year period, including a two-night stay at his Colorado ranch.

However, he insisted he had 'separated' himself from any planning decisions made by his department in relation to the site, which were handled by his junior ministers, Chris Leslie and Lord Rooker.

'I had no influence over planning decisions in these matters,' he said.

Official documents obtained by The Guardian under freedom of information laws are said to show Mr Prescott's department was directly involved in the casino plans. The papers also reveal that the Deputy Prime Minister's officials requested updates on the casino application and pressed ministers in the department responsible for gambling to meet executives at Mr Anschutz's company AEG.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said, 'In terms of the issues, John Prescott has addressed the issues.'

The investigation by Sir Philip Mawer, the standards commissioner, will focus on claims by shadow culture secretary Hugo Swire that Mr Prescott's visit to Mr Anschutz's Colorado ranch should have been entered in the Register of MPs' Interests.

Other allegations that Mr Prescott's regular meetings with Mr Anschutz created a conflict of interest are covered by the Ministerial Code and are a matter for the Prime Minister, said the Commissioner's spokeswoman.

Sir Philip expects to produce a report for the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee by the time parliamentary recess starts on July 25. …