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Thursday, 15 February, 2001, 21:02 GMT
Dome woes haunt Blair
millennium dome
Has the sun set on Labour's Dome dreams?
by BBC News Online's Robert Orchard

The government is severely embarrassed ... again. The opposition parties are calling it a fiasco ... again. Yes, it's the latest twist in the increasingly farcical saga of that Millennium Dome which now haunts Tony Blair.

A triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity

Tony Blair on the Dome, December 1999
Intended as a symbol of a new, brighter Britain, the Dome has been empty since the beginning of the year.

But if ministers hoped media attention would disappear with the last visitor, they have had a rude awakening.

Now that Legacy has been stripped of its preferred bidder status, all bets are off again and the Tories are saying one option must be to bulldoze the entire structure.

Labour may have got cold feet at selling the Dome to a company run by a major donor to the party, Robert Bourne, just before a general election.

Property speculation

There were worries, privately, that Legacy could end up making embarrassingly large sums of money through property speculation at the Dome site.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair -- admits Dome mistakes
Things all looked so different three years ago ... to Tony Blair at least .... and the prime minister cannot escape personal responsibility for the project.

Taking over Michael Heseltine's Tory brainchild, the new Prime Minister reputedly overruled widespread scepticism from the new Labour Cabinet to stop the project being scrapped.

In those far-off halcyon days, Mr Blair extolled the Dome's virtues to anyone who would listen, and just before it opened he was still claiming it would be "a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity".

Manifesto highlight

Then, the Dome was to be highlighted as a glittering New Labour achievement in the next election manifesto .

Hindsight is a wonderful thing .. governments shouldn't try to run tourist attractions

Tony Blair on the Dome, October 2000
By last autumn, though, the prime minister was eating a large helping of humble pie at the Labour conference.

"Yes," he told delegates, "there are things we have done that have made people angry and we should be open enough to admit it.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and if I had my time again I would have listened to those who said governments shouldn't try to run tourist attractions," he said.

Opening night shambles

The headlines had gone from bad to worse, beginning with the shambles of long queues on opening night.

The chief executive carried the can and resigned within weeks. Her replacement failed to boost visitor numbers to anything like the wildly optimistic projections made for the Dome.

After replacing Peter Mandelson in the hotseat, Dome Minister Lord Falconer, a former flatmate of the prime minister, faced a torrid time with repeated calls for his resignation over rising costs.

Tony Blair faced increasing pressure and mockery from the Tory leader, William Hague, as Conservatives sought to exploit growing Labour doom and gloom over the Dome.

Tables turned

But the prime minister has managed to turn the tables on occasion ... reminding Mr Hague that he sat on the cabinet committee in 1996 which decided many of the issues relating to the ill-fated project.

Now though, this modern Whitehall farce seems set to run and run and the Tories are gleefully demanding resignations, in what must seem a political gift from heaven.

With the government unlikely to get the Dome off its hands before the election, the Conservatives say the structure - reputedly described by Prince Charles as a "monstrous blancmange" - is an enduring symbol of Labour waste and incompetence.

It's a symbol they intend to exploit to the full in the coming campaign.

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See also:

19 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Blair pays tribute to Dome staff
24 Sep 00 | Labour
Blair admits Dome letdown
14 Dec 99 | UK Politics
Dome will be ready - Blair
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