Prescott calls in to say: I'm in charge

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The Independent Online
John Prescott yesterday showed he was in charge of the Government in the Prime Minister's absence by telephoning a live BBC radio programme to intervene in a row over immigration visas for a group of trainee priests.

"Presco", as the deputy Prime Minister is known by Tony Blair, has been overshadowed by Peter Mandelson, the Government's `spin-doctor-in-chief', since they were left in charge by the Prime Minister when he went on holiday to Tuscany nine days ago.

Mr Mandelson has taken the spotlight in recent days, appearing for the Government on a range of issues, including the sale of Lord Simon's shares, the Royal Yacht and the inquiry into allegations that Chris Patten leaked details of a secret deal between London and Peking.

Mr Prescott yesterday interrupted the BBC Today programme after hearing a report over breakfast that the trainee priests were being refused entry because of problems over visa clearance. It is understood that he was at Dorneywood, a Government country house, and checked with Downing Street before calling the programme.

The priests, from Africa and Asia, are studying in Belgium and wanted to come to the UK for up to eight weeks for work experience and to act as holiday relief for British priests.

The decision to refuse them entry was described by a London priest as "naive ... stupid ... sheer ignorance ... bad manners ... something they (the authorities) should be ashamed of".

Father Kit Cunningham, of St Ethelreda's, Holborn, in central London, said it was "naive and stupid" on the part of Foreign Office officials to suggest they would overstay their visas.

"The idea is just so ludicrous that these men should come over, get lost, then reappear as tobacconists in Luton. The mind just boggles."

Mr Prescott telephoned the programme and ordered an immediate inquiry at the Foreign Office "There might be a perfectly good reason but I'm not yet satisfied that there is" he said.

"If this story is right, there seems to be a certain amount of injustice. Here's people wanting to come to Britain. University students studying Theology."

The Foreign Office last night said the decision to refuse visas was being "urgently" reviewed by the British consul, who was contacting the trainee priests for more information about the purpose of their visit.

"If, as a result, he is satisfied that their applications now fall within the Immigration Rules, visas will be issued," said a Foreign Office spokesman.

Mr Mandelson, who is running for election to the party's national executive committee at the Party conference in October, will be able to steal back the limelight on Thursday. He is planning to deliver a Fabian Society lecture which will invoke the spirit of Lady Thatcher.

He is expected to say: "We obviously didn't agree with her vision in 1979, but she knew what she wanted to achieve. Tony Blair has got to put in place the same rock-hard determination to tackle the social ills and economic causes of social exclusion."

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