Parliament & Politics: The Sketch - Railway round-up rouses Prescott from his holiday blues

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The Independent Online
JOHN PRESCOTT looked bored and fed up during most of Transport and Environment questions yesterday.

Making his first Commons appearance since his suggestion of a new power axis with Gordon Brown, he seemed unusually preoccupied. Rather more overweight than usual, he looked as though the festive indulgence had taken its toll. Maybe he was trying to diet, which might have accounted for his unwillingness to react, or perhaps, now the boss is back from the Seychelles, he misses being in charge.

The recess was an enjoyable experience for the Deputy Prime Minister to run the show and live it up in the official residence at Dorneywood, while giving a series of interviews hinting that Old Labour would be taking over in the wake of Peter Mandelson's resignation. In the Chamber, Mr Prescott can usually be goaded into a rage. He mutters incessantly, even when Tories attack him indirectly. Not today.

Bernard Jenkin, a Tory frontbencher, asked Richard Caborne, a junior minister, about favouritism in Mr Prescott's constituency over Government road projects.

Mr Jenkin was suggesting Mr Prescott has double standards, proclaiming him to be anti-car everywhere, except in Hull. The Deputy Prime Minister stirred briefly, but could not even be bothered to shout his usual obscenities from his seated position.

Even Rosie Winterton (Lab, Doncaster Central) asking a patsy question about the role of buses failed to ignite him. At the mention of buses he usually waxes lyrical, but on this occasion he mumbled something about more people being able to use low-floor buses.

Richard Ottoway, another Tory, asked if Mr Prescott would resign if the Jubilee Line Extension was not open in time for the Millennium. "It will be," Mr Prescott snapped. If there were delays they would be sorted out but the problems were "all the Tories' fault" anyway.

Only when we got to railways did Mr Prescott rouse himself like a lazy lion to play his favourite game of Fat Controller. Mr Prescott gets it both ways with trains.

If any MP takes him to task about the ghastly services, he blames it all on the Tories and privatisation. If anything is going well, it is, he says, only because he is putting more money into trains. He got momentarily excited when it came to discussion of the Strategic Rail Authority which, according to him, will solve all the ills of privatisation. But there was Tory mockery when he declared that there would be a "rail summit" on 23 February.

Mr Prescott did his best, without enthusiasm, to bluster his way through rail questions with a series of statistics. "800 new drivers; 500 new rolling stock vehicles." Now that he has become respectable, responsible and very important, there are fewer examples of the old Prescott, where anger and rage were his hallmarks.

We did get one example of a Prescott howler, however, when he talked of a "crash programme to find new drivers".

With Mr Prescott largely taking a back seat yesterday, it was left to the formidable Transport Select Committee chairman, Gwyneth Dunwoody, to provide us with the cabaret act as she described the latest horrors of travelling on Richard Branson's Virgin Trains.

Mrs Dunwoody reported that in her area there are no printed timetables available to passengers and suggested that this was probably just as well because since, as no trains run on time anyway, passengers might as well guess what time trains arrive and depart.

Forget rail summits, Mr Prescott: put Mrs Dunwoody in charge of your authority and Mr Branson and his ilk won't have a prayer before her formidable powers of rage and persuasion.