John Rentoul: I'm not a fan of Mr Bush, either. But Mr Prescott is just as deserving of the C-word

Prescott probably knew his word would be published
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I am not that keen on George Bush either, but the one thing I regret most about him is the malign influence he has on British politics. Take last Tuesday. It was a day when two of the most prominent politicians in this country distanced themselves from the US President. First, in the Deputy Prime Minister's office on Whitehall, John Prescott used the C-word in a private meeting with Labour MPs. He thought the Bush administration had been "crap" in delivering on the road map to Israeli-Palestinian peace, he said, before turning to an official to say, with pantomime theatricality, "Don't minute that."

Second, in St Stephen's Club overlooking St James's Park, David Cameron used the D-word. Speaking about the crisis in Lebanon, he said that the Conservatives did not endorse "disproportionate" actions. Given that he was talking about his support for democracies in the region, it was pretty clear that the D-word did not apply to Hizbollah. Yet it is the word that has become the marker dye for opposition to President Bush's "uncritical" support for the Israeli government, and thus for opposition to Tony Blair's "uncritical" support for President Bush.

Both words were used quite deliberately. I would not say that Harry Cohen, the MP for Leyton and Wanstead who acted as unofficial minute-taker to the Deputy Prime Minister, was part of a Prescott media operation. There are two kinds of hard-left Labour MPs, the straight and the devious, and Cohen falls securely into the first category. But that Prescott expected his word to be published seems probable. His initial response was to confirm the report. "These discussions are intended to be private," his spokesman said. It was only the next day that he issued what purported to be a denial: "This is an inaccurate report of a private conversation and it is not my view." But the "this" in that sentence could be taken to refer to The Independent's headline, which simplified the story to: "Bush is crap, says Prescott."

Prescott has form in these matters. At 7 o'clock on the morning when The Times published his comment that "when plates appear to be moving, everyone positions themselves for it", under the headline "Race to seize Blair's crown is under way, says Prescott", he issued a statement saying the headline was "untrue". He might be described as an adherent of the Literalist school of media management.

The transparent purpose of the C-word tactic was to try to rehabilitate Prescott with party, press and public opinion. Being rude about the US President is an easy way to win applause in this country. Of course, the use of what an American journalist called an "expletive" is not recommended for the leader of the Conservative Party. David Cameron has a more delicate path to tread. His predecessor and patron, Michael Howard, got on the wrong side of the Bush White House and was banned from its pillared verandas. It did not do him much good with Bush-haters back home, partly because he tied himself in knots over his support of the Iraq war, but a more deft politician might be able to sell a more independent foreign policy. Cameron also has the advantage of knowing that, if he becomes prime minister, he is unlikely to have to deal with Bush, who will stand down in January 2009.

Cameron's use of the D-word was largely symbolic. He refused to call for an unconditional ceasefire - the more substantive rallying cry of the anti-Bushites. But such symbolism is something in which opposition politicians can indulge - including those that are members of the Cabinet, such as Jack Straw, who also used the D-word. Cameron balanced his appeasement of the anti-Bushites with an eye-catching attempt to present himself as tough on terrorism, with an attack on the Government for not doing enough.

The next day, Cameron published his interim manifesto, Built to Last. This laid out the tentative first stages of an alternative Conservative programme, full of ghastly economic illiteracy about "affordable housing", but including a section on defending the nation from "internal and external threat". Surely it would contain all the things the Government had so signally failed to do in the struggle against terrorism? Well, it promises "a constructive Unionist response to the West Lothian Question". Although it doesn't say what it is. Still, no doubt when it is published the hand-luggage restrictions can safely be eased. Then there is the promise to appoint a minister for homeland security. And to abolish ID cards if they are introduced. Only in his speech and in interviews did Cameron come close to substance, pretty much calling for an increase in the Home Office budget. A terrific idea from a party in favour of "first-class healthcare, education and housing" and against high taxes.

He and Prescott can only try to bolster their positions with symbolic gestures - C-words and D-words. Yet such distancing from an unpopular US President should be careful. There is a danger, especially when speaking to MPs representing large Muslim populations, as Prescott was, of appearing to endorse the view that US (and British) foreign policy consists of the persecution of Muslims. That madness has to be repudiated. Many people think, for example, that Iraq was invaded for the wrong reasons, but it was not invaded in order to oppress or kill Muslims.

Neither Prescott nor Cameron has come near crossing that line, but they are guilty nonetheless of a lack of courage. Distancing oneself from Bush is an easy way to win applause - and to avoid the difficult questions.

Prescott put his finger on it in his meeting with MPs. He only supported the Iraq invasion, according to Cohen, because Bush promised the Israel-Palestine road map, on which he failed to follow through. Yet if Britain had stood aside from Iraq, as the French did, what would that have achieved for the Palestinians? At least the road map was published - and its failure owes something to the lack of Palestinian leadership as well as Bush's unwillingness to put pressure on Israel.

Similarly in Lebanon: even if the Israeli response to Hizbollah provocation was disproportionate, which I do not accept, what would have been achieved by condemning it? How much pressure can Jacques Chirac exert on Israel through Bush?

These are difficult questions, and merely dismissing the Bush administration as crap only makes it harder to answer them.