Tony Blair was yesterday urged by the official Whitehall "sleaze" watchdog to "clear the air" by holding an inquiry into Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's contacts with the US tycoon Philip Anschutz.
The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham, warned the Prime Minister not to allow "political considerations" to stand in the way of an investigation.
He said that Mr Blair should now ask Sir John Bourn, the respected head of the National Audit Office appointed by the Prime Minister to advise on ministerial interests, to look into the whole matter.
His intervention followed a report that Mr Anschutz, who is bidding to open a super casino at the Millennium Dome, gave Mr Prescott an elaborate Wild West outfit when he visited his ranch in Colorado last year.
According to the Mail on Sunday, the gift included a pair of tooled leather boots, a Stetson hat, and a belt with Mr Prescott's initials on a silver buckle.
Such items, made by local craftsmen, were said to cost anything up to 20,000 dollars.
Mr Prescott's position was further destabilised by reports that Environment Secretary David Miliband, seen as the torch bearer for the younger generation of Blairites, was being lined up as a replacement if he was forced to quit.
Sir Alistair, however, insisted that such concerns should not deter Mr Blair from mounting an inquiry into claims that Mr Prescott's contacts with Mr Anschutz represented a conflict of interests.
"It does seem to me when these issues relate to a central aspect of Government policy in terms of casinos, the future of the Dome, planning issues like that, it would be much better to clear the air by invoking the procedure to ask Sir John Bourn to carry out an investigation," he said.
"I think the Prime Minister and the Government would be better positioned in dealing with these issues if they used the procedure that he himself introduced only fairly recently.
"Otherwise you lay yourselves open to the criticism either that you are rather lax or don't care sufficiently about standards issues, or political considerations in terms of whether there could be a deputy leader election - all those sorts of political-type issues - are uppermost in your mind rather than what is proper."
Earlier, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker disclosed that he had asked Scotland Yard to investigate whether Mr Prescott broke anti-corruption laws when he stayed a Mr Anschutz's ranch.
A spokeswoman for Mr Prescott refused to be drawn on the reported gift of a Wild West outfit. Under ministerial rules, such presents to Ministers become the property of the department concerned and the Minister must buy them back if he wants to keep them.
The spokeswoman said: "All gifts are registered in the usual way and the annual return will be published in a PQ (parliamentary question) in July as is normal practice for all ministers".
Meanwhile Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt dismissed the reports that Mr Miliband is set to replace Mr Prescott as "speculation and froth".
"There is no vacancy at the moment for deputy leader or Deputy Prime Minister and John Prescott, like all the rest of us in Government, is just getting on with what we were elected to do," she said. ..SUPL: