Prescott forced to apologise to author

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Political Correspondent

John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, has been forced to apologise over an allegation against Nick Howard, the author of a damaging article criticising Tony Blair that was mistakenly published in a newspaper last week under the name of Bryan Gould, the former member of the Shadow Cabinet.

Mr Prescott claimed it was "inconceivable" that Mr Howard, the 19- year- old son of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, had not informed Conservative Central Office about the mistake. The London Evening Standard said a mix- up of faxes led to the paper publishing Mr Howard's strongly worded article under the name of Mr Gould instead of the piece submitted by the latter.

Mr Prescott also accused Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, of perpetuating the "lie" about Mr Gould's criticism in media appearances. Dr Mawhinney has strongly denied the claim.

Three days later the Standard admitted its mistake. In his explanation of why he had not called the paper to point out the error earlier, Mr Howard said he had faxed his article a day before the piece purportedly by Mr Gould appeared and had then gone on holiday to France.

Mr Howard's lawyers demanded an apology from Mr Prescott, who has told them in a letter: "I remain dissatisfied with the explanation given by the Evening Standard and sceptical as to whether they have even conducted a full inquiry. However ... as you have assured me that Mr Howard acted immediately he discovered the error I am prepared to withdraw my remarks and apologise to him."

Stewart Steven, editor of the Evening Standard, said yesterday: "I am very surprised indeed that Mr John Prescott remains dissatisfied with my explanation as to what actually happened. It is universally accepted that this was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. There can, indeed, be no other conceivable explanation.

"Once August is over and we are back into real politics, I think even Mr Prescott will accept this."