Saved at last gasp by an old pro

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Japanese called him "The Walking and Talking Man" because he was always doing one or the other - or, more usually, both at once. John Prescott has never been short of words and seemed to have the stamina to match as he rushed around the hideous Kyoto conference hall - having slept only one hour in the previous 48 - sticking together the last-second deal that emerged as the world's first serious attempt to tackle global warming.

It was a desperately close-run thing. All through the final hours of the United Nations gathering, the Americans (who proved more flexible than generally portrayed), the Japanese and the Europeans all had to be held fast to a hierarchy of targets for reducing their emissions: if one had slipped, the conference would have failed. But this depended on Third World countries agreeing to a clause that would allow them to set their own voluntary limits on the pollution.

At 5.30 in the morning after the night the conference was supposed to close, Prescott - thinking the deal was secure - went to his hotel to shower and change. He returned to be faced with collapse. The Third World had refused. Somehow he and environment minister Michael Meacher (who played a vital subsidiary role) persuaded rich countries to stick to their targets all the same, and the treaty was saved.

One crucial element was a secret telephone summit in those final hours between Tony Blair, President Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto, with Chancellor Kohl also involved. (Hashimoto at one stage asked Blair to get Prescott to relax his pressure: Blair refused).

In the end it was tied up with just half an hour to spare before another conference moved into the building. Big UN conferences often go to the wire, but not quite like this. They usually finish when the translators can stand no more and walk out.

o IT IS only a year since Labour was showing little interest in the environment. Now global warming is one of the few areas where it is being radical. For the world to be persuaded to tackle global environmental issues, it seems there has to be a major country going all out for a solution: Germany over acid rain; the US over the ozone layer. It also seems to need a negotiator prepared both to establish trust and to bang heads; over ozone it was an Egyptian, Mostafa Tolba, who had been known to shut delegates up in airless rooms until they reached agreement. This time, Britain and Prescott filled the bill.

The agreement is far less than what will eventually be needed to make climate change manageable, but it is a vital start, infinitely more than anyone seriously expected: despite Greenpeace's knee-jerk initial condemnation of it as a "tragedy" and a "farce", there is now, in Prescott's phrase, a "window of creditability" in which governments need to make the treaty work.

o DAVID CLARK, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, also had a good week, producing - against all fashionable predictions - a radical, and widely applauded, White Paper on Freedom of Information. He is a much- maligned figure, constantly tipped for the sack (which, of course, has nothing to do with Peter Mandelson, his nominal deputy, wanting to get into the Cabinet).

But have you noticed that it is the old, supposedly outdated, pros, such as Prescott and Clark who are generally getting things done in this government? David Blunkett, at Education, is often mentioned as the most impressive minister after Blair, Brown and Cook. The much-written-off Frank Dobson and Michael Meacher are doing well at Health and Environment, and even Jack Cunningham is making a better job of Agriculture than I, for one, expected. The big cock-ups are down to such much-hyped figures as Lord Irvine, Harriet Harman and - yes - the Dome Secretary himself.

o AMONG the few villains at Kyoto were the oil and car companies that set out to sabotage the talks, and the US senators who arrogantly asserted that they would see that the deal became "dead in the water". Euro MP Tom Spencer has an idea for immortalising them. As global warming will cause more disastrous storms, why not name them appropriately? Let's hear it for Hurricane Esso or Tornado Ford.