There is a time when the laughter has to stop. The Prescott affair is not a comedy. It is a moral issue and a moral failure. This is a serious country; the world's fourth-largest economy and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In our efforts to punch above our weight in international affairs, we have an overstretched Army, with troops in conflicts around the world.
Governing such a country is a high responsibility and an enduring challenge. As Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott will be in charge of the government during August, the month when crises often occur.
We are told that he will not be allowed to do anything. Other Ministers will be available to "help" him. This presumably involves preventing him giving interviews, working the puppet strings, and if all else fails, administering the knockout drops. But this is farce, not government. Indeed, it goes beyond farce. If a playwright produced a script with a Deputy Prime Minister like John Prescott - an oaf who ran his office as a Prescott-and-Judy show - any decent management would instruct the author to take it away and introduce some verisimilitude.
Even the puppet-masters do not inspire confidence. Mr Prescott will have the assistance of Hazel Blears and Jacqui Smith. Their names are well known, among political obsessives. Otherwise, no one has heard of them; and no one has missed much. One suspects that they will be on duty, not because they are good enough, but because they are junior enough to be bullied into postponing their holidays.
If Tony Blair still possessed a fraction of the moral seriousness which he used to claim, John Prescott would have been out long ago. If Mr Blair's political judgement were still working Mr Prescott would be long gone. John Prescott's survival indicates that Tony Blair no longer cares.
So does the fate of the three British bankers caught up in the Enron case. Few functions of government are more important than the preservation of the liberty of the subject. The same applies to the maintenance of the right to due process. There could be only one reason for overriding either: to preserve life. That is why the Government was right to negotiate a treaty with the US which should have made it easier to extradite terrorist suspects.
But there have been two problems. First, the US has not yet ratified the treaty and shows no signs of doing so. Second, the treaty is now being used for an illegitimate purpose. British subjects are about to be extradited to the States even though their alleged offences were nothing to do with terrorism, even though they were committed in this country and even though no prima facie case has been made out against the three men.
Anyone who has heard tell of the doings of the US Internal Revenue Service in matters such as double taxation will know that the Americans are capable of displaying a superpower's solipsism. Because the three British bankers had the temerity to assert their innocence and to try to seek the protection of our laws, the men are to be treated as fugitives, denied bail and subjected to durance vile.
This is another moral issue. Indeed, it is an outrage. There will be consequences which are even more serious than the maltreatment of three British subjects. It will discourage British firms from doing business in the US. It will encourage anti-Americanism. The claim will be made that because of the US, our troops are risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan; our bankers, in Texan prisons.
America has been and remains Britain's greatest ally, and has never received sufficient credit. As an economy, a society and a polity, the US has strengths which are lamentably unappreciated here. In Britain as in the rest of western Europe, anti-Americanism is becoming the socialism of fools.
That said, America is not always right. The US authorities cannot be blamed for acting as they have over the three bankers; few human beings will reject the offer of something for nothing. But the Americans should have been told, months ago, politely but firmly, that this would not do. A country as proud as Britain does not sign unequal treaties. Nor does it sign treaties which are subsequently misused, to the detriment of its citizens.
There is still time to act. Mr Blair could attempt to repair the damage to the government's reputation by announcing some transatlantic voyages had been cancelled. The bankers would not be flying out to receive American hospitality, nor would John Prescott. Mr Blair could do that, if he still cared. The failure to act would prove he was neither interested in his duties nor able to perform them.Reuse content