And even murkier still…

More information seems to be emerging on the dealings between Anschutz and the UK Government in this morning’s Indy.

For one thing, Anschutz donated $1.5 million to the London Olympic bid in addition to sending what the Indy describe as a ‘key lieutenant’ from AEG to advise on the campaign – nothing fundamentally wrong in any of that as having invested in the Dome it makes perfect business sense for Anschutz to try and maximise his prospects of a return by backing a bid that would bring a high profile sporting event to his venue. What this does do, however, is provide more evidence of the extent of his dealings with government and, in particular, with DCMS, which makes it allt he more imperative that his bid for a casino is very carefully handled to avoid conflicts of interest.

However, what also seems to be on the point of emerging is evidence – in the form of e-mails – to back up the allegation that Southend’s local authority were pressured by staff from ODPM to drop their own planned but for the casino licence in order to ensure that the Anschutz bid for Greenwich got a clear run.

Having [eventually] decyphered the interview he gave to the Today programme, yesterday, it would appear that Prescott’s line on this one is to cry foul and claim its all a Tory smear and then invoke the ‘Manuel Defence’ of ‘I know nothing…’

…as yet he hasn’t quite got around to claiming that he’s from Barcelona, but that’s surely only a matter of time.

If it is verified that Southend got the metaphorical horse’s head on the pillow from ODPM so as not to queer Anschutz’s pitch then I really can’t see how Prescott can wriggle off the hook on this one without the whole thing stinking to high heaven.

Prescott’s claim that he knew nothing about what his underlings might have been up to is no real defence in this matter – from the documents found by Newsnight on the DCMS website, they, and others, including staff in DCMS’ Gaming and Lotteries Branch, were certainly aware of his interest in the matter, as this section from one of the Newsnight documents clearly shows:

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Equally interesting is this section from a memo issued in early August 2003

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Anschutz, I should mention, didn’t make the proposed meeting on 14 August due to nothing more sinister than a screw over diaries, which left them double booked.

But hang on a second, look more closely.

In item 6, there’s a reference to a ‘Dome Sale Unit’ in OPDM – hasn’t Prescott said publicly in his defence that the deal on the Dome was already done and dusted before it came under his purview as a minister?

Now look at item 4, particularly the reference to ‘the changes in the planned Gambling Bill will need to be in place before this [AEG’s casino] can happen.

Am I wrong in thinking that this looks very much like staff at OPDM facilitating access for AEG executives to lobby not just on an application for a casino but on matters relating to the Gambiling Bill that would make such a casino possible?

One obvious question arises here, which is how, if at all, AEG’s desire for a US style casino in Greenwich might fit into the development of the Gambling Bill, itself – were these changes in the Bill programmed before AEG’s interest in a casino at the Dome was apparent to the government, in which case this is pretty much a non-issue, or was AEG’s hat in the for a casino before such changes were mooted and, if so, were the government influenced, in any way, by AEG’s interest in a casino at the Dome?

The relevant timetable for all this was that the Bill, itself, came out of a report by Alan Budd, which led to a white paper in March 2002 and, finally, the draft bill in November 2003- the same period in which Anschutz started his regular meetings with Prescott.

One should put this in its proper context  and say that in other circumstances all this would merit very little attention as there’s nothing particular unusual about a company pursuing a particular business interest lobbying the government for policy decisions that would work in its favour. What makes this particular story worth looking at a bit more closely than usual in both Prescott’s meetings with Anschutz – of course – but also the pivotal role of the Millennium Dome in all this; particularly when one considers that what we have here is a govenrment with a notorious aversion to bad press and a tendancy to jump into things feet first and in an often ill-considered and badly thought out manner at the first sign of flak from the media coupled with a project – the Dome – that was nothing but a shit-magnet from start to finish.

Whether all this amounts to something or nothing, it does not detract from questions about whether Prescott and the ODPM exercised undue influence in Anschutz’s favour.

The counter to Prescott’s claim to innocence on the grounds that he knew nothing of any dealings between his civil servants and DCMS doesn’t stand up, not because there’s any evidence, as yet , that he really was pulling the strings but because:

a) The mere fact that his staff at ODPM were aware of his meetings with Anschutz and AEG’s interest in a casino at the Dome site will clearly have influenced their thinking on, and approach to, working with AEG. If nothing else they would almost certainly have assumed both that Prescott and Anschutz had discussed the matter of the casino and, in the absence of instructions to the contrary, also assumed tacit approval for his scheme on the part of their political master(s), and

b) As a government minister – as Prescott knows full well, he bears ultimate responsibility for the actions and conduct of his department, whether he knew what they were up to or not – such is, and has been, the doctrine of ministerial responsibilty in parliament for centuries.

Beyond that, Prescott is bound by the ministerial code of conduct, which contains these injunctions…

Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests;

Ministers should avoid accepting any gift or hospitality which might, or might reasonably appear to, compromise their judgement or place them under an improper obligation;

Notice the wording in bold here – Minister’s need to consider not only the actuality of a particular situation in which a conflict of interest might arise, but all the appearance of that situation, and on has to say that even if it were to transpire that, with hindsight, this whole business is entirely kosher, it sure as hell looks bad right now and none of the substantive questions being asked about his dealings with Anschutz are particularly unreasonable or overly speculative.

On that basis, one has to consider that, on appearances alone, Prescott has breached the ministerial code – maybe not so much as to require an immediate resignation or dismissal from office by the PM, but enough to demand a full explanation of his dealings with Phil Anschutz, an independent review of the conduct of civil servants within ODPM and DCMS in relation to AEG’s casino bid and, of course, a full and unreserved apology to the House of Commons.

Such a course of action is, I would consider, entirely necessary in order to establish the probity of the process by which the licence for the super casino is awarded.

Without it, questions about Prescott’s relationship with Anschutz will continue to overshadow this issue up to an beyond the final decision in this matter, irrespective of whether AEG get the licence or not. AEG might genuinely be the best bidder for the licence, but if probity is not properly established there will remain the suspicion that they’ve been playing with a marked deck all along, which might easily prompt one of the other bidders to mount a legal challenge if they come to feel that the contest for the licence wasn’t as open, transparent and above board as it should have been.

And even if AEG miss out, such a decision may still arouse suspicion – did they really lose to a better bid or a bout of political expedience designed to get Prescott off the hook.

Either way, as things stand, the whole process for awarding the super casino licence stands as having been compromised by Prescott’s actions in this matter, and that desperately needs to be put right as soon as possible.

One thought on “And even murkier still…

  1. Your point (b) above is entirely correct; I would just add two extra supporting points: (1) Lord Carrington resigned from the Tory administration on an issue where he had certainly had no personal responsibility but was the governing Minister so carried the can; (2) your quote from “Questions of Procedure for Ministers (QPM)” is entirely accurate, but there is also a bit there about cash value of personal gifts to Ministers (even if declared) which Prescott has apparently transgressed with his undeclared-so-far acceptance of a upmarket cowboy outfit with silver personalised initials (= serious value) from Anschutz. This, if proved, could be very serious.

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