Leading article: A refreshing antidote to the spin culture


Trust John Prescott. Comprehensively sidelined through the high-summer terrorist alert by the Home Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister has come striding back into the limelight in his own inimitable way. He is reported to have told a private meeting of Labour MPs that President Bush's commitment to the road map for peace in the Middle East was, to put no finer point on it, "crap". He also had some colourful language for the US President's cowboy mentality, adding - in characteristically self-deprecating fashion - "I can hardly talk about that, can I?"

The morning after the plain-speaking of the night before, of course, is a time for denying, forgetting, or simply not having heard what was said. Yesterday a veritable pea-souper of oblivion seemed to have descended on the meeting concerned. The Deputy Prime Minister himself, concerned perhaps that his disloyalty to the holidaying Prime Minister had become public, issued his own carefully crafted denial.

All of which is a great pity - for two reasons. It is a pity, first, because, as the then Mrs Thatcher almost said in similar circumstances, every government needs a Prezza. But this spin-bound government needs one more than most. Over the past nine years, Tony Blair and his communications staff at Number 10 have evolved a whole new political language in which meaning comes second to technique.

So often have ministers been caught out in the ultra-positive and selective gloss they have applied to the facts that the public has developed a healthy scepticism towards almost anything they say. The instinctive cynicism many people felt about the latest terrorist alert shows the risks of so devaluing the language.

Amid all the Blairite smooth-talking and spin, the gritty language of John Prescott, who tells it like it is, is refreshing. His sporadic outbursts of the vernacular constitute a vastly underestimated political asset to the Government. Unlike his undeclared freebie weekend at the ranch of an American billionaire, and unlike his affair with his diary secretary, his tendency to speak his mind is really not something he should be ashamed of.

The second reason why Mr Prescott need have no second thoughts about his choice of vocabulary is because he was doing no more than giving voice to a view that is widespread among Labour MPs - and, it should be said, in the country at large. "Crap" might not be the most sophisticated way of describing Mr Bush's approach to the Middle East road map, and it is probably not a word we would set out to employ in an editorial. But it was high time that someone broke through the false façade of party unanimity to tell the truth about the failure of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Inelegant Mr Prescott's description might have been, but it did the job.

Accounts of the context in which Mr Prescott made his remark also confirmed something that has long been suspected, but never definitively pinned down. The Deputy Prime Minister reportedly told MPs that he had given his support to the Iraq war only because the US had promised in return to advance the Middle East peace plan, known as the road map.

As we now know, and as Mr Prescott and his fellow MPs have learnt to their political cost, the Iraq war went ahead with the support of the British Parliament, but there was no comparable push from Washington to implement the road map. On the contrary, the Middle East conundrum was essentially left to fester. With the recent assault by Israel on Hizbollah in Lebanon, which has put back the peace process by at least a decade, the full cost of that US breach of faith is now clear.

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