Prescott may sue over claims he hit Tory

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The Independent Online
IT could be seconds out today for a libel action pitching John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, in the red corner, against the diminutive former Tory MP, Jerry Hayes, in the blue corner.

Mr Prescott may affectionately have been called "thumper" by his friends in the 1980s, but he is threatening to sue Mr Hayes for claiming he hit the Tory MP when Labour was in opposition.

Mr Prescott's solicitors have warned that unless an apology is forthcoming, a writ would be issued for the allegation by Mr Hayes, now a political gossip columnist for Mohamed Al Fayed's Punch magazine.

The Deputy Prime Minister strongly denies hitting Mr Hayes in the stomach playfully or otherwise in the members' lobby of the House of Commons after Mr Hayes made some unflaterring comments about him on the radio.

"It's just not true so he will be seeking an apology," said one of Mr Prescott's friends. "He is certainly not ruling out the question of suing."

Mr Prescott, who learned to handle himself when he was in the Merchant Navy, recently demonstrated his self-control at the Brit awards when a member of the pop group Chumbawumba sought to gain publicity by throwing a bucket of water of him.

He was not in a forgiving mood following the incident. He later summoned the organisers of the awards to his office to give them a carpeting.

Mr Prescott could be the first member of Tony Blair's Cabinet to go to court if he decides to sue over the allegations made by Mr Hayes. The editor of Punch, James Steen, said the magazine was not publishing an apology, but was carrying four pages on its legal fisticuffs with Mr Prescott, with a front page photo-montage of the Deputy Prime Minister wearing a judge's wig.

Mr Steen said Mr Prescott's solicitors, Davenport Lyons, had sent a letter a week ago. "What they want is an apology published in the magazine, a statement in open court publicly retracting the allegations and an undertaking we won't republish the defamation.

"We are expecting a writ tomorrow. We are not going to apologise. I have spoken to Jerry Hayes about this. Jerry Hayes is half the size of John Prescott. What he describes as a punch in the stomach might seem to John Prescott just a jab, but he says it was a punch."

After the dousing by Danbert Nobacon, Mr Prescott complained at the weekend that it seemed to be "open season" against him after reports alleging that he had failed to declare pounds 27,000 from the Joseph Rowntree Trust.

Sir Norman Fowler, Mr Prescott's Tory shadow, last night pursued the allegation by calling for an investigation in a letter to Sir Gordon Downey, the parliamentary commissioner for standards.

A spokesman for the trust said yesterday that Mr Prescott had approached the trust to fund a programme of research by Bruce Millan, the former European Commissioner for the regions, into regional policy.

Mr Prescott's aides yesterday explained the circumstances to Sir Gordon's office. Mr Prescott declared the first instalment of the donation from the trust in the register of members' interests but under Sir Gordon's guidance set up a fund to handle a second payment which he did not declare because it was not paid to him.

Mr Prescott insisted that as the Joseph Rowntree Trust is a well-known charity which publishes its accounts, there was no attempt to conceal the sum. Sir Norman said he entirely accepted Mr Prescott's statement that he derived no personal financial gain from the contribution. "That is not the issue at stake. The issue is whether money given to aid a specific policy investigation should be declared in the way that, for example, Jack Straw has done."

Mr Straw, Home Secretary, recorded a grant of between pounds 10-pounds 15,000 towards research on constitutional policy from the trust when Labour was in opposition.