John Prescott is under mounting pressure to quit after an official inquiry was launched into his links with an American tycoon who wants to open a super-casino at the Millennium Dome.
Cabinet ministers are starting to contemplate "life after Prescott" , and some believe the cumulative effect of another round of damaging allegations will persuade the Deputy Prime Minister to stand down.
But last night he categorically denied the claims, insisting: "These stories are a load of crap. I expect to get a card from Tony Blair at Christmas." He will appear on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning in a bid to clear his name and hang on to his deputy leadership of the Government and the Labour Party. Speculation mounted yesterday that he would resign in order to limit the damage to the Government. He is being investigated by Parliament's anti-sleaze watchdog, Sir Philip Mawer, over his stay at the Colorado ranch of the billionaire Philip Anschutz a year ago.
Westminster is also awash with rumours that further revelations about Mr Prescott's private life are imminent, but his spokesman was adamant: " There's absolutely no question of him resigning."
The Prime Minister last night pledged his support to his deputy. Mr Blair wants to avoid a contest for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, which would put the question of when he will stand down as Prime Minister firmly in the spotlight.
The question of Mr Prescott's future is likely to arise again during today's weekly Cabinet meeting. One option would be for him to resign as Deputy Prime Minister but to soldier on as deputy Labour leader until Mr Blair leaves Downing Street, probably next spring or summer.
Mr Prescott performed a swift U-turn yesterday by disclosing his visit in the MPs' register of interests. His move came too late to stop a preliminary inquiry into the trip by Sir Philip after a complaint by the Conservatives.
The Parliamentary Standards Commissioner decided there was a case to answer and enough evidence to warrant further investigation. He will now write to Mr Prescott about the visit.
Lord Snape, a close friend of Mr Prescott, fuelled speculation that he might quit in a Sky TV interview. "I hope he stays where he is. I just think he's had a pretty torrid time recently. I hope he fights on but I could well understand if, like most human beings, he said he'd had enough."
There was no sign that Downing Street would ask Sir John Bourn, the new adviser on the ministerial code of conduct, to consider whether Mr Prescott had breached the code, which says there must be no appearance of a conflict of interest. Mr Blair's spokesman said there was nothing wrong with Mr Prescott's stay, during an official visit to the United States. "The Prime Minister believes it is important his ministers meet large investors in this country on a regular basis," he said.
The spokesman said Mr Prescott would not personally influence the casino licence or planning permission for the Dome development. But opposition MPs claimed he played a key role in setting up the panel that will recommend where Britain's first super-casino will be built.
There are signs that support for Mr Prescott on the back benches is waning. Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North, said Mr Prescott should have realised the trouble he would get in meeting Mr Anschutz.
"Well it just goes on and on," he told the BBC. "I wish it wasn't there. But if you tie yourself up with the rich and powerful you get your fingers burnt."
Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, said: "This really is ridiculous. Government ministers and senior officials ought to be above board when it comes to any kind of commercial negotiation and clearly spending a weekend at somebody's ranch makes you their guest."
Hugo Swire, the shadow Culture Secretary, said several questions remained unanswered. He asked: "Did his visit to the billionaire's ranch contravene the ministerial code? Why did he meet Mr Anschutz seven times? Why did he go on to meet with the chief executive officer of Mr Anschutz's company only two days later? Why is he denying responsibility for the Dome? What involvement has Mr Prescott had in shaping government policy on casinos? "
The Deputy Prime Minister also came under fire from gay rights activists, who claimed Mr Anschutz had backed "homophobic" campaigns in the US.
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the gay rights group Stonewall, said: "Given that Prescott's voting record is quite good, I would be rather surprised if they found anything congenial to discuss over supper. I find it curious that John Prescott would think he had anything in common with Mr Anschutz."Reuse content