Ministers' patience wears thin over Prescott scandal

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Indy Politics

Cabinet colleagues of John Prescott believe he would have to resign if he is criticised by the parliamentary inquiry into his failure to declare a visit to the Colorado ranch of the US billionaire Philip Anschutz.

The Deputy Prime Minister's friends insisted yesterday he was "very chipper" and "in no mood to quit" and expressed relief that there were no damaging new allegations in the Sunday newspapers.

However, there were signs from other ministers that the patience of some colleagues is wearing thin.

"If he doesn't go now, it's going to be hell through to August," one cabinet minister said.

"I feel very torn. On the one hand you cannot give in to this media frenzy. He can certainly say he is not going to be hounded out of office and he can wait until the Mawer inquiry. But if Mawer criticised him, he will have to go."

The inquiry by Sir Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, could be published on the last day of the parliamentary session on 25 July, the day MPs leave Westminster for the summer break. Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat MP, has written to Tony Blair saying he should ask Sir John Bourn, recently appointed to oversee the ministerial code, to investigate any breach of the code by Mr Prescott.

The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham, backed the calls and warned the Prime Minister not to allow "political considerations" to stand in the way of an investigation.

Hugo Swire, the Conservative MP, who led the calls for Sir Philip to investigate Mr Prescott, said last night he would ask Sir Philip to widen his inquiry to cover reports of gifts received by Mr Prescott.

There were claims at the weekend that Mr Prescott received a pair of cowboy boots, a stetson and a cowboy belt with his initials from Mr Anschutz as more details emerged of his visit to the ranch. His office refused to confirm the reports but said an annual report on gifts to ministers would be given to Parliament before the summer recess.

It is understood that on the morning after a dinner at the ranch with Mr Prescott, Mr Anschutz left the farm and asked his ranch manager to show Mr Prescott the range.

The Deputy Prime Minister, who said last week he was interested in cowboys when a young boy, is believed to have toured the farm on horseback. "He's a very active man," one of his friends said. "You don't go around a farm in a car."

A senior minister said there was no Whitehall evidence of wrongdoing by Mr Prescott in connection with the takeover of the Dome by Mr Anschutz and the billionaire's plans to open a super-casino on the site. "Mr Prescott thought eight casinos for Britain was too many. He would have preferred two or three super-casinos but he has no influence over where one will go."

There were reports that Mr Anschutz was threatening to pull out of the Dome investment if he did not get the casino. One ministerial source said: "If the reports are true, he's being stupid. It's being decided by an independent panel and it will have no influence on them."

An ally of Mr Prescott said: "John is absolutely firm he has done nothing wrong. There is no evidence to suggest he has done anything wrong. He is certainly not about to quit."

Downing Street dismissed as "absolute nonsense" reports that David Miliband, a Blairite, was being prepared to take over the summer watch from the Deputy Prime Minister, who is due to run the country when Mr Blair leaves for his annual holiday in August.

Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, dismissed the claims as "silly season stories". However, Kate Hoey, the Labour MP and chairman of the Countryside Alliance, said: "Is it really realistic for him to stay on all over the summer?"

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said there was "no killer fact" to finish Mr Prescott in the weekend reports but added that the attacks on him "won't go away".