Leading article: Mr Prescott should not be made a scapegoat for a flawed transport policy

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JOHN PRESCOTT is not the sort of man to duck out of a fight, but cutting short an official visit and flying 4,000 miles back from India just to be insulted by John Redwood takes political pugnacity to new heights. Mr Prescott, in truth, doesn't have too much to fear from his Conservative critics, given their record in office on Transport. No, Mr Prescott has a much more intractable problem, which is that he is rapidly becoming the scapegoat for the Government's failure in transport policy and is descending into the dangerous sort of political joke territory that was last occupied by the unlamented Norman Lamont.

Mr Prescott is, to some extent at least, the author of his own problems. It was he who raised expectations about his department, and who declared that he would judge himself a failure if he did not cut the number of journeys made by car on a five-year timescale. But Mr Prescott should not be made a scapegoat.

Leaving aside the jokes about "two Jags" and the snobbishness about his syntax and background, Mr Prescott is an intelligent man, a competent administrator with a head for detail, who, in opposition and in government, has never been short of ideas, bright or otherwise, about boats, buses, trains and planes.

All of these efforts have met with the unrelenting hostility of the No 10 policy unit and the Treasury. Be they Mondeo man or, presumably, Clio woman, Mr Blair and his advisers in Downing Street have shown themselves to be in thrall to the motorists of Middle England. This is not without merit, in fact. All governments have to be sensitive to public opinion, and the case against simply persecuting car-drivers while public transport remains inadequate is a strong one.

Downing Street was right to reject some of Mr Prescott's more radical proposals, but has also failed to come up with workable schemes of its own, fully focus-group-tested and road-ready. Instead, it gives the impression of being content to hang Mr Prescott out to dry while he implements policies that are not really liked.

Congestion charging, a deeply flawed policy that hits the poor hardest, may well fill the funding gap for public transport but it is unlikely to be introduced before 2005. How will investment in public transport be funded before then? It is impossible to escape the conclusion that Mr Blair, his advisers and the Treasury, as well as Mr Prescott, have all failed to recognise the potency of Transport as a political issue, especially among key swing voters.

Mr Prescott can do little, faced with the combined political and bureaucratic inertia of No 10 and the Treasury. He could threaten to resign. But that "nuclear option" is something that could be used only once. In any case, it is an unsatisfactory basis for making policy.

Some new thinking and a new approach are required, which should be symbolised by separating Transport from Mr Prescott's super-ministry and appointing its own secretary of state at the cabinet table. It is not the whole solution, but it would be a step on the right road.