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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 18:58 GMT
Labour's White Elephant
Peter Mandelson at the Millennium Dome
High hopes: Peter Mandelson and the Millennium Dome
News that the Millennium Dome is to be handed over to a US-led consortium - in exchange for a share of the profits - closes one of the strangest chapters in recent political history.

The giant tent - which Tony Blair once boasted would be the first line of New Labour's 2001 election manifesto - very nearly became its epitaph.

With costs spiralling out of control and millions of disappointed visitors, the attraction became an all-too-convenient rallying point for critics of Mr Blair's first term.

Now it seems the Dome will be re-born as a 20,000 seat music and sports venue.

The deal has been brokered by Lord Falconer, one of the prime minister's oldest friends and allies, and one of the few politicians to emerge from the Dome saga relatively intact.

As a reward, he has been handed the key task of reforming the criminal justice system - which will probably seen like a walk in Greenwich Park compared to being the villified Minister for the Dome.

So where did it all go wrong?

'Popularity'

The incoming Labour government's decision in 1997 to proceed with a project championed by influential Conservatives like Michael Heseltine was by no means a foregone conclusion.

The then Culture Secretary Chris Smith was among the opponents.

On the back of his landslide election victory, Tony Blair's personal authority was at its height.

The Dome was meant to be a showcase for the "New Britain" that Tony Blair wanted to create.

Its 14 corporate-sponsored zones would be crammed with the sort of high-tech, forward-looking, populist exhibits which, it was felt, would epitomise Blair's Britain.

Mandelson's commitment

The project had also won the youth vote, famously been given the seal of approval by Mr Blair's teenage son Euan.

Unusually for this government, press opinion was largely dismissed.

Michael Heseltine
Heseltine: wanted to regenerate East End
There was little attempt to court key commentators, with the result that the Dome became the butt of relentless hostile media coverage.

The most influential supporter of the Dome was undoubtedly Peter Mandelson at that stage very much the coming man of the Labour Party.

His commitment was deeply personal.

In the teeth of similar hostility, his grandfather Herbert Morrison had turned the 1951 Festival of Britain into a success.

Half a century later, Mr Mandelson believed he could do the same.

Heseltine's dream

Michael Heseltine's continuing support from the Conservative side was also personal.

He saw it as part of his long-cherished dream to see the east of London re-developed.

But the project was doomed from the start.

Transport problems on the opening night, which saw VIPs - including it is believed several newspaper editors - stranded on a station platform for two-and-half hours poisoned opinion against the project.

Its early days were dogged by mammoth queues and appalling reviews.

Public money

In its post-election hubris, Labour saw no reason why it shouldn't compete with the likes of Disneyland or Alton Towers.

But although the Dome attracted 6.5 million visitors - making it the second most popular attractions in Europe after Euro Disney - it could never hope to recoup its cost in a single year.

And it began to swallow public money at an alarming rate.

Ever the canny operator, Mr Blair never visited the attraction after that fateful opening night.

And he handed the task of disposing of what was rapidly becoming the government's biggest liability to Lord Falconer.

'Disgraceful'

Early bids -such as the 125m Legacy plan to turn it into a high tech business park and housing estate - foundered as running costs began to spiral.

As the months dragged on, it looked as though the Dome would never be sold.

Some critics would argue that Wednesday's deal means that it still has not been sold.

The Tories have branded the move - which effectively gives the Dome away free of charge - "disgraceful" and have said unspeakable things about Lord Falconer's skills as an estate agent.

But Lord Falconer - like the rest of his party - will no doubt just be glad to see the back of it.

See also:

18 Dec 01 | UK
Dome bidding chronology
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