Crisis? What crisis? says Prescott as he jets off

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The Independent Online
A BELEAGUERED John Prescott headed for India last night on a six-day visit, provoking yet another controversy at the end of his worst week since the general election.

As Tory MPs demanded to know why the Deputy Prime Minister needed to pay a second lengthy visit to the region in nine months, Mr Prescott was bemused by the latest spate of newspaper reports attacking his performance at the unwieldy Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR).

"I thought we had a good day," he told his ministers yesterday amid a bumper crop of damaging headlines and stories which questioned his long- term future in politics.

The Prescott camp blamed yesterday's bad press on the London Evening Standard, which often sets Fleet Street's agenda. On Wednesday, the newspaper ran an article headed: "All going wrong for Prescott's transport empire", listing his problems over his U-turns on the London Underground and road- building, and a threatened backbench Labour rebellion over his plan to partially privatise Britain's air traffic control service.

Mr Prescott saw the Standard piece as an act of revenge because the paper was not tipped off about his decision to scrap plans to hand part of the Tube to Railtrack. But privately, even close allies admitted Mr Prescott had brought some of his problems on his own head. "He tries to do too much and falls between too many stools," one Cabinet minister said. "He won't delegate or prioritise. He wants fingers in every pie."

Another minister said the public had "rumbled" Mr Prescott on transport, an issue causing multiple blips on Tony Blair's radar screen. "He calls a `rail summit', followed by a `bus summit'. He upsets the motorists so he calls a `roads summit'. This is not a policy - it is all hot air."

The thin-skinned Mr Prescott will blame the sniping on his traditional enemies within the Government. They include Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary; pollster Philip Gould, the doyen of the "focus groups" so despised by Mr Prescott, and the Downing Street Policy Unit. He once attacked the "teenyboppers" in Number 10 who regarded his policies as "anti-car" - though his target was Geoff Norris, a greying forty-something.

Mr Prescott sees Mr Mandelson's hand in everything. After The Independent ran a front-page story this summer saying Mr Blair had ordered Mr Prescott to "get a grip" on transport, he rang me on my mobile phone and growled in his unmistakable voice: "It's Mandelson here."

Mr Prescott feels he is more "spinned against than spinning". When Labour came to power, he deliberately chose not to appoint a personal spin doctor to present him in the best light to the media. Mr Prescott believed spin doctors would fuel Cabinet rivalries by promoting individual ministers rather than government policies.

Now Mr Prescott is to make another U-turn. With refreshing honesty, he acknowledges his reluctance to play the media game has added to his problems over transport. A scathing report has just been compiled about the civil service communications team at the DETR on which he has relied.

An inquiry has found his press officers spend hours worrying about what appears in specialist publications such as Railway Gazette rather than the national newspapers read by millions. Mr Prescott will appoint a high- powered director of communications. But there is a problem: so far, there are no high-powered takers. After Mr Prescott's disastrous week, the Tories scent blood, led by "Rotweiller Redwood", Mr Prescott's opposite number and one of the few Tory frontbenchers with teeth.

The Opposition has called a Commons debate on transport next Wednesday but Mr Prescott will not be back from India to face the music. Aides insist India has a vital role to play in reducing global warming, an issue on which Mr Prescott has scored a little-noticed international success.

It is Mr Prescott's domestic woes which worry Labour MPs. Martin Salter, MP for Reading West, said: "Transport is really hitting us hard in terms of voter satisfaction.... to address it, we need to have political skill and sensitivity." Mr Salter was a victim of Mr Prescott's irascible side during last month's Commons debate on the Queen's Speech. When Mr Prescott tried to interrupt his attack on the air traffic control sell-off, Mr Salter refused to give way. By the time he did so, a furious Mr Prescott, his face looking like thunder, had stormed out of the chamber.

Prescott allies insist much of the criticism is unfair, blaming a nervous Downing Street for delaying the legislation needed to improve Britain's creaking transport system.

Alan Meale, a close Prescott ally sacked as a minister by Mr Blair in a shake-up of the DETR this summer, said: "Tony Blair took the decision to form this gigantic department with John in charge of it."

Lord Macdonald, the fourth Transport Minister to work under Mr Prescott since the election and the only one to get on well with him, said: "It's a big department but John Prescott is a big man. We certainly don't feel under siege."

Blair allies admit creating the DETR was a mistake. Part of it will be hived off to a new rural affairs ministry, but not until after the next general election. If Mr Blair retains power, he could move Mr Prescott only with his agreement. He cannot be fired, because he has been elected Labour's deputy leader.

Mr Prescott is still loved by the Labour grassroots and Mr Blair has often needed his loyal support. "John delivered the party; he can take it away," said a Prescott ally. Some Blairites are starting to wonder whether this is still true.