LONDON -- Amid plummeting public support in Britain for backing America's policy in the war on terrorism, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott denied yesterday that he called President Bush a "cowboy with his Stetson hat" whose progress on a Middle East peace plan was "crap."
The tempest over Prescott's purported remarks in a private meeting with fellow Labor Party lawmakers underscored growing misgivings within the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who until now has been Bush's strongest ally on Iraq, Afghanistan and, more recently, Lebanon.
Harry Cohen, a Labor member of Parliament who attended the meeting, said Prescott was expressing strong frustration over Washington's inability to achieve progress on a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a sentiment he said was shared by a growing number of lawmakers in Blair's camp.
"What he was saying was he only supported the war in Iraq because of the 'road map' [the U.S. plan for reaching a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians], and he was lamenting the lack of progress on the road map, and he said the Bush administration was crap in relation to the road map," Cohen said in an interview.
"It followed straight on when he said Bush is acting a bit like a cowboy with his Stetson hat."
Prescott, in effect, denied the account. "This is an inaccurate report of a private conversation and it is not [the deputy prime minister's] view," his office said in a statement to the Press Association.
Shahid Malik, another Labor lawmaker present at the meeting, declined to discuss it in detail but said: "I support fully John Prescott's comments on his comments. I think it's been blown out of proportion somewhat." The Guardian said two other Labor deputies present had confirmed the substance of the account.
The larger issue - sharply declining public support for Washington's course - was made clear with the release of a new poll on "the war on terror" that shows only 14 percent of respondents think Britain should continue to closely align its foreign policy with that of the U.S.
Just 8 percent said they believed that the war against terrorism announced by Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks was being won, according to the poll, conducted this week for Spectator magazine.
On the other hand, only 12 percent believed Britain should adopt a "more conciliatory" approach toward the terrorist threat; on the contrary, 63 percent thought it was necessary to be "more aggressive."
Prescott's purported remarks were widely reported in Britain but were not seen as a significant splinter in the government's pro-Washington orientation, largely because Blair continues to forcefully endorse Bush's strategy and Prescott has been shaken by so many domestic scandals he is seen as a political has-been.
Indeed, his alleged remark about Bush's Stetson hat was intended self-deprecatingly, Cohen said. It was an apparent reference to the scandal that followed Prescott's failure to report a trip to the ranch of U.S. billionaire Philip Anschutz and the businessman's gift of a cowboy outfit worth about $580, including boots and a Stetson hat.
"He said, 'I can hardly talk,' because he was involved in this other scandal where he had the cowboy outfit," Cohen said.
But many of those present agreed with the deputy prime minister's purported comments about the Middle East, Cohen said. "It was a fair point. He might not have wanted to get that colorful language into the public domain, he might be embarrassed and deny it for political expedience, but I think the central point is right."
He said there was "a robust discussion" among all the parliamentarians over the lack of progress in the Middle East.
"All the other MPs were making the point that really we should have a more independent foreign policy, that's in Britain's interests; we shouldn't just follow blindly whatever the United States sets up as its foreign policy," he said.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said the British prime minister remains "a firm ally of the United States in the war on terror."
Both Bush and Blair have "taken some hits in the polls," he acknowledged, but "they still see their primary obligation as protecting national security."
"The president's been called a lot worse, and I suspect he will be," Snow said. "But that's part of the burden of leadership."
Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.