Anschutz cancelled our latest meeting, Prescott admits

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Indy Politics

John Prescott has rejected claims that he is not up to running the country this summer when Tony Blair is away.

The Deputy Prime Minister also said he would be "happy" to meet Philip Anschutz again. The billionaire owner of the Millennium Dome is the reason Mr Prescott is embroiled in a political storm over a visit to Mr Anshutz's US ranch.

Mr Prescott was due to meet Mr Anschutz this week on the day the row erupted over Mr Prescott's failure to declare last year's visit to the Colorado ranch.

The meeting was cancelled at short notice by Mr Anschutz. Sir Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, is investigating allegations Mr Prescott should have declared the visit before volunteering to do so last week.

But Mr Prescott said he would be happy to reschedule. The Deputy Prime Minister attacked the innuendo that suggests corruption links his visit and the inclusion of a casino in the Dome development.

"The irony is that he [Mr Anshutz] was coming for his six- monthly visit on the day that there was screaming and shouting in the press," said Mr Prescott.

"These are six-monthly meetings he asked at the beginning whether I would do. Even though there was a fuss, I had no desire to cancel but he obviously had a look at the press and decided to cancel it.

"I would be very happy to see him. I think he had arranged a whole series of meetings which he does when he is here."

Mr Prescott said he was aware of Mr Anschutz's reputation for being anti-gay, when the US tycoon bought the Dome but he insisted that should not interfere with Mr Prescott's ministerial role in overseeing the regeneration of the Greenwich peninsula in which the Dome is a key component.

"When he purchased the Dome they said all that. I was asked right at the beginning by him, 'can I see you every six months when I come round and see how the project is going?'

"Since we slotted the Dome in, since it was the Olympic bid as well, as well as the things that were going to go into it, I gave that promise then and I see no reason or wrong in being there to talk to him, to see how the Dome is going. In fact that's part of my responsibility because it's a major regeneration.

"He was going to be here on that date, and I thought that would be a good story for the press but he rang up and cancelled."

The meeting is being rescheduled by Mr Prescott's office, although the DPM said that he had "not contact with him at all".

Mr Prescott denies claims that he had influence over the casino policy.

"It's a kind of trial by the press isn't it?" he said. "If the allegation is corruption, I know it's not there and nobody has produced any evidence of such a thing. There may be questions about my judgement but they may be matters for other people to make judgments about.

"The insinuation all the time is that - it's not true."

In an upbeat mood after one of his most difficult weeks in office, Mr Prescott laughed off reports that ministers were worried at his ability to run the country this summer when Tony Blair is on holiday.

He added: "I am getting on with the job. This is the 10th occasion on summer watch. I shall be proud to do so. They [in the media] are all saying they will make it more difficult. I will have to live with that.

"I read in the paper people are beginning to ask, 'Can I look after a summer watch?' This is the 10th summer that I am doing.

"If you put it together with Easter and Christmas, it's nearly two months of the year. That may come as a bit of a shock to them but it's been going on for nine years, and there has not been a peep of criticism and the polls have gone up for us every time."

Mr Prescott said it amounted to more than 18 months since Labour came to power during which he had been in charge of the country. "That might scare one or two editors but they didn't notice any difference."

He said he had "one regret" that this summer he would not be allowed a holiday because of the press intrusion into his private life.

"I have got one real regret - after the summer I have to go in September for my holidays or take them before. Last summer, the Daily Mail commissioned photographers to sit around for 24 hours a day when I went to Majorca with my wife. I had to cancel a fortnight's holiday after two days because of that intrusion. It's a pity they won't allow you to have your holidays - but that's life."