So who will carry the can for the transport mess?

`Mr Prescott may, in a slightly chaotic way, have just given himself the chance to defuse the crisis'

AFTER AN operatically bad 90-minute journey that should have taken at most 35 minutes yesterday - no eastbound Central Line trains because of points failure at White City, famine of eastbound Circle Line services, protracted wait followed by evacuation of Jubilee Line train at Waterloo because of unspecified fault - may I be among the first to extend a warm welcome to Tubehell.com, the new therapeutic on-line service that allows passengers to share their experiences of trauma on the London Underground. Prominent on the already popular website are an unflattering cartoon of John Prescott and a digital petition calling on the Deputy Prime Minister to travel by Tube on four consecutive days, in return for which a pounds 5,000 donation will be paid to a charity of his choice.

But Samir Satchu, the website's enterprising founder, who dreamt up the site while stuck in a stifling carriage at East Putney in the summer, has a problem, namely, whether Mr Prescott is the right man to feature at all. After all, anyone reading the newspapers would quickly have come to the conclusion that Mr Prescott no longer has any responsibility for transport. Time, you might have thought, for Mr Satchu to slot in an image of Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, the personable media tycoon and Labour minister who the stories announced would henceforth be taking charge. Then, lo and behold, Mr Prescott (in The Independent) and Lord Macdonald both announce that is not the case, that nothing much has changed and that the peer will simply be acting as a managing director reporting to the "executive chairman", Mr Prescott, just like his other ministerial lieutenants. What on earth is Mr Satchu supposed to do?

Perhaps, as every world-weary observer has immediately assumed, it really was a case of Downing Street spin doctors briefing against Prescott via the Sunday papers, only to find him biting back tenaciously the following day. If so, the explanation for what happened - more cock-up than conspiracy - is unusually imaginative and plausible for a cover story, particularly as it comes from quarters close to the man himself.

The story is that the Deputy Prime Minister happened to be talking to a very senior editorial executive at The Sunday Times about a mildly embarrassing story concerning his son's land-dealing in Hull over two years ago, a matter in which his own role, as it happens, was entirely honourable. Mr Prescott volunteered that instead of that old story it might be of more interest to the readers for the paper to focus on his imminent speech on transport. In that and at least one subsequent conversation with the paper he explained he would be outlining a 10-year strategy, the day-to- day implementation of which would be carried out by the trusty Lord M, while Prescott turned his own mind to the "coming areas" such as urban renewal, planning and house-building. All of which the paper reported accurately, but with a headline that much concerned Prescott, saying that he was to "lose" responsibility for transport.

Why does all this triviality matter? Only in that it shows that the truth about cabinet politics is often a little fuzzier than allowed for in the rather flattering assumption that nothing happens, let alone appears in the press, without it being willed to do so by the all-powerful super- intelligences at the centre. It does not alter the fact that Tony Blair has been worried and frustrated that his Government appeared to be getting into a mess over transport; or that he has been alarmed at the focus groups' evidence that it is seen as "anti-car"; or that Mr Prescott has been damaged by press and opposition attacks; or that Lord Macdonald, who has spent a career in television, will be making rather more media appearances on transport, which is, after all, his ministerial responsibility, and thus taking the heat of Mr Prescott; or that Alan Evans, director of the Downing Street Strategic Communications Unit, recently reviewed the department's presentation and came to the obvious conclusion that it needed some urgent act-sharpening.

But it does help to explain why Mr Prescott's speech yesterday was at once more significant and less momentous than expected. Significant because it contained two assumptions that badly needed to be made explicit and should have been from the start. The first was to dispel the notion that there is a Manichean and exhaustive distinction between being pro- or anti-car. The very simple message, which should have rung out loud and clear much earlier than it did, is that attracting motorists off the roads and into fast and efficient public transport benefits everybody, not least the motorists who remain in their cars and face less congestion as a result. But second, that to achieve that will take a lot of time and money - and the building of some new roads.

It was less momentous because the changes are not quite as sweeping as billed. Lord Macdonald's terms of engagement back in October provided for his regular attendance in the Cabinet. He has been active behind the scenes in the negotiations with the private sector. And he probably would have already adopted a higher profile had it not been for the Paddington rail crash, which required Mr Prescott to be in the front line.

That does not, of course, mean that Mr Prescott is suddenly out of jail. Indeed by insisting - rightly - that he is still in overall charge of transport, the Deputy Prime Minister, as he surely knows, has ensured that he cannot pass all the blame for what henceforth goes wrong to Lord Macdonald, who may nevertheless take some credit for what goes right. Here he may be helped by two paradoxical facts. The difference between the NHS, which I suspect will soon become a hotter domestic policy issue, and transport is to do with expectations. The advantage for Labour on the NHS is that they are more trusted than the Tories. The disadvantage, according to some of the survey evidence, is that the electorate strongly expects them to improve it quickly. On transport, the electorate is rather more fatalistic, as I can attest from the commendable calm I encountered on three different London Tube lines yesterday morning.

But it expects something to be done. Here the problems of the past few weeks could work to Mr Prescott's advantage, as they have at least dramatised the case for more public investment. Put in a more menacing way, they will make it less forgiveable if he cannot secure the money he now expects Gordon Brown to find. Some of the complaints against Mr Prescott are snobbery: for a man supposedly unable to use language, he made one of the very few political speeches of the last decade - at the Labour conference in 1993 - that persuaded an audience to do something. But he cannot be exonerated for the troubles of the last few months. Expectations were raised that have not been fulfilled. His plan for the Underground still looks like a messy compromise. But he may, in a slightly chaotic way, have given himself the chance to defuse the transport crisis. And as for Mr Satchu and his Internet cartoon? Best to keep Mr Prescott there until we get a London mayor. If we ever do.

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