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Wednesday, 8 December, 1999, 15:34 GMT
Analysis: Prescott's problems
On the bus: John Prescott in the driving seat

By BBC transport correspondent Tom Heap

Most polls put health and education near the top of the public's concerns. But transport is the one area of public policy with which nearly all off us come into contact every day.

Very few of us enjoy the experience - John Prescott's troubles stem from the government's failure to appreciate the scale of the transport problem.

Trying the bike lane
The government has woken this sleeping giant of discontent by promising to make things better. This may be virtuous but it is politically dangerous if not foolish.

The combination of Mr Prescott's presentational blunders and Downing Streets acute sensitivity to public discontent have led to the impression of chaos when most transport experts actually believe the policy is roughly on target.

The last 10 days illustrate the problem:

  • Monday 29 November: Mr Prescott meets the roads lobby to tell them he can accelerate the roads programme. He has been promised some more money by the chancellor from ring-fencing of fuel price rises.

    The RAC and the British Roads Federation go away pretty happy. But he could have done it weeks before at the time of the pre-Budget statement. Instead those weeks were full of headlines about "war on the motorist". So he ends up looking defensive and the papers scream "U-turn".

  • Tuesday 30 November: Railtrack ejected from tube negotiations. Both politicians and those in the rail industry have no doubt that the real motive is political.

    Labour's favoured mayoral candidate, Frank Dobson, would lose against Ken Livingstone if the government appeared to be favouring "Britain's most hated company".

    Amid strong suspicion of Downing Street intervention, Mr Prescott left to pick up the pieces of his plans to get private money into the tube.

    Getting into his car
  • Wednesday 1 December: The Transport Bill gets first reading. Most of it is consistent with the white paper of two years ago. Crucially, congestion charging and workplace parking taxes still there.

    So there is plenty for the Tories to attack and the many Labour backbenchers are unhappy with plans to part privatise air traffic control, while the tube U-turn is still being digested.

  • Thursday 2 December: The deputy prime minister goes to India on business and revives memories of his trip to the Seychelles where he went diving on taxpayers' money. Tories table an opposition day debate on transport, forcing him to return early.

  • The weekend: Political gossip and headlines suggesting he has enemies within government, specifically at Downing Street. Is the ministry too big? Is he in control? Will he lose the job after the next election?

  • This week: Over-enthusiastic rebuttals from Downing Street: "You can't fit a Rizla paper between us and JP."

    The phrase "under siege" comes to mind.

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    See also:
    05 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
    Prescott: I will not quit
    08 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
    Prescott's future in doubt
    08 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
    Labour's beleaguered deputy
    08 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
    Blair defends transport delivery

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