Prescott cuts trip short to face debate

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The Independent Online
THE DEPUTY Prime Minister does not bear an obvious resemblance to a fox, and having wilfully summoned every British journalist in Delhi to his presence it could not strictly be said that he was at bay. But he conveyed the impression of a cornered animal at the start of his press conference last night, speaking in a hushed gabble to avoid disturbing the knots of faintly curious Indian businessmen dotted around.

Besides explaining his presence in India, he also announced that he would be cutting his trip short and returning to London to be in the House of Commons for Tuesday evening's debate called by the Opposition on his performance.

The awkward fact was that he had flown halfway round the world for no very obviously compelling reason, while commentators back home were in no doubt that he was in the midst of the biggest crisis of his career. And here he was, with his back against the wall, justifying the trip.

Memories of other inopportune flights to sunny places flooded back, notably the former prime minister Jim Callaghan's "Crisis? What crisis?" flight to the Caribbean for a holiday, in the midst of an industrial relations shambles. That mistake did much to get Labour thrown out at the 1979 election.

Mr Prescott's problems are more peculiar to himself. His dithering over Tube privatisation, the fury that has greeted his plan partially to privatise air traffic control, and the flak from car drivers over his recent moves to hit their wallets all indicate a minister whose duties stretch his abilities further than they should rightly be stretched.

"I'm trying to re-start talks between the UK and India on the Air Services Agreement that have not been held for a long time," he started off, his eyes on the ground and his voice not much above a whisper, like a boy delivering a lame excuse for bunking off school. But the diffidence soon burned off, like Delhi mist under the morning sunshine, and he was his usual cheerful self.

He'd be seeing the Indian Prime Minister, speaking at an economic forum on infrastructure, transport and growth, and though he would be cutting short his trip, no meetings would have to be cancelled.

"I'm also the Deputy Prime Minister," he insisted, when it was suggested that he would be better off tackling his self-made crises in Westminster. "You don't just sit at home."