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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
Prescott not out of the woods yet
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
Mr Prescott stayed at Mr Anschutz's ranch last summer

John Prescott may only have been delivered a slapped wrist over his stay at the cowboy ranch of US Dome owner Philip Anschutz - but there was nasty sting in the tail of this report.

The Commons standards committee suggested its role - and that of watchdog Sir Philip Mawer who carried out the investigation - is so limited that a wider inquiry into whether the deputy prime minister had breached the ministerial code was probably in order.

And that is precisely what Mr Prescott's critics have been demanding and what the prime minister - who is the only one with the power to order that probe - has steadfastly refused to do.

It would certainly represent a far more serious investigation and throw a major new question mark over Mr Prescott's future.

If it found the relationship between Mr Prescott and Mr Anschutz did lead to a conflict of interest, or the appearance of one, it could be a lethal blow to the deputy prime minister who has protested his innocence throughout this affair.

Independent investigator

The committee report certainly gave the Tories enough ammunition to demand that the prime minister now takes that action and ask watchdog Sir John Bourn to look at the relationship between Mr Prescott and Mr Anschutz.

That call has already come from others, including the Commissioner on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham.

The MPs' report also claims the power to order such investigations should not be left in the hands of the prime minister but handed to an independent agent.

That is grist to the opposition's mill and will put powerful new pressure on the prime minister to change his mind.

So far, however, there has been no sign that is about to happen, with Mr Blair's official spokesman stating the issue was now at an end.

Cowboy boots

The problem arises because Sir Philip Mawer's job is only to examine the operation of the MPs' register of interests.

He found Mr Prescott did break the rules by failing to register his stay at Mr Anschutz's ranch - which the deputy prime minister has belatedly corrected.

He also found that the present of cowboy boots and a belt were ministerial gifts and did not need to be declared.

The failure to register the visit was deemed a relatively minor offence and the committee, which considers Sir Philip's reports, decided it did not warrant further action, such as an apology to the Commons.

But Sir Philip does not have the power to investigate the far more serious allegations, and the ones at the centre of the allegations that Mr Prescott breached the ministerial code.

Demands for the prime minister to now order that probe are bound to increase in the wake of this report.

And, with Mr Prescott about to take over running of the country during the prime minister's summer holiday, they will have greater potency.

The added danger now, however, is that attention will turn to the prime minister himself with questions being asked over why he is so reluctant to see his deputy investigated.


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