A bloodied but unbowed John Prescott has vowed to carry on as Deputy Prime Minister despite growing signs that support for him in the Cabinet and Labour Party is waning.
Mr Prescott tried to stem a tide of speculation that he might be forced to stand down over his links with the American billionaire Philip Anschutz, whose company has taken over the Millennium Dome site at Greenwich and wants to build Britain's first supercasino there.
Defending his weekend stay at Mr Anschutz's Colorado ranch and six other meetings with him, Mr Prescott said he would have met him even more often to secure the prize of turning the Dome site into "the jewel of London" and creating 10,000 new homes, 24,000 jobs and £5bn of private investment.
In a bizarre twist, Mr Prescott told BBC Radio 4 that he also wanted to visit the ranch because of his love of Westerns. He told the Today presenter John Humphrys: "That is why I took that opportunity, probably not only to look at a working cattle ranch but to visit one, I'm curious about it, I saw the cowboy films over my young years, didn't you? I was interested to have a look at it."
Although his tone was defiant, he left open the possibility that he might resign if he was judged a liability. "I'm staying as long as I believe I'm getting on with the job," he said. He added: "I always recognise it is the responsibilities of others that can make the decision about whether I'm worthy of support and a job in government."
The allegation that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister pressured Southend-on-Sea to withdraw its rival bid for a casino gained weight last night after it was reported that a series of e-mails were exchanged. " ODPM want to make a decision on a single preferred option... reason for this being that government policy is ONE licence," wrote Mary Spence, chief executive of Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership, to colleagues after a meeting with Prescott's officials.
Southend Borough Council's chief executive, Rob Tinlin, responded that it was a "wholly indefensible approach from the ODPM which is meddling in the first degree" a claim Mr Prescott's spokesperson denied.
Downing Street again insisted he enjoyed Tony Blair's "full support" but there was little sign of public support from cabinet colleagues. Some believe Mr Prescott's time is fast running out and that the "tipping point" could come if there are any fresh revelations about his links with Mr Anschutz or his private life in this Sunday's newspapers.
Mr Prescott, who has admitted having an affair with his former diary secretary Tracey Temple, refused yesterday to categorically deny he had had other relationships, saying there was "no truth in much of the stories".
Labour insiders said Mr Prescott lacked widespread support among the party's MPs, many of whom were appalled by his relationship with Ms Temple. Some are questioning his links with Mr Anschutz.
Mr Prescott's hopes of clearing his name suffered a setback when Sir Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, announced he would launch a full-scale investigation into a Tory complaint about his visit to the Colorado ranch.
Sir Alistair Graham, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, urged Mr Blair to order an inquiry into whether Mr Prescott might have breached the ministerial code of conduct.
But the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O' Donnell appeared to rule that out last night. Mr Blair is refusing to ask the official adviser on the code, Sir John Bourn, to look into whether Mr Prescott faced a conflict of interest. "He doesn't want to lose him because he doesn't want a deputy Labour leadership election," said one minister. Mr Prescott shrugged off the disclosure of government papers showing Mr Anschutz was aware getting permission for the casino was a "central feature" and "key plank" of his company's strategy. They revealed Mr Prescott's officials requested updates on the casino application and pressed ministers responsible for gambling to meet executives at Mr Anschutz's company, AEG.
Mr Prescott replied: "I was never involved in any such action. If you say to me, were there some civil servants down the line exercising some judgement about this... I was not involved in it, didn't even know about it until I read in the press, totally reject any idea I expressed any pressure whatsoever."Reuse content