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Thursday, 9 November, 2000, 06:43 GMT
Profile: Domesday for Falconer?
Lord Falconer, Dome minister
By the BBC's Bob Chaundy

The phrase "poisoned chalice" reverberated around Whitehall when Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC was first given ministerial responsibility for the Millennium Dome.

It is fair to say that being in charge of it has given him nothing but grief.

As the publication of the National Audit Office's report has drawn nearer, with the increased expectation that it would contain strong criticism of the beleaguered project, calls for his resignation came thick and fast from government backbenchers, Tories and much of the tabloid press.

Some Labour MPs are fearful of the electoral consequences should no one take responsibility for Dome's seemingly endless cash bail-outs which have cost the Lottery fund millions.

Falconer and the Dome
Lord Falconer: There's no place like Dome
Charlie Falconer, as he is known to colleagues, is a vulnerable enough target for criticism irrespective of how much personal blame should be attached to him for the Dome shambles.

He is a powerful man. More than just a Cabinet Office minister, Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed him to no less than 14 cabinet sub-committees where many key government decisions are made.

But he has never been elected. He has, however, shared a flat with the prime minister, a childhood friend.

The personal relationship, along with Mr Blair's decision to send him to the Lords in order to put him in government, has made him a chief target of attacks on "Tony's cronies".

But the relationship between the two men got off to a rocky start.

In the 1960s, Blair was a pupil at Edinburgh's Fettes school - the "Scottish Eton", as it is known - while Falconer was at another private school nearby, Trinity College, Glenalmond.

No further money for the Dome will be required

Lord Falconer, August 2000
Tony was dating a fellow student, Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, whom Charlie fancied. "We got on very, very badly", he once said.

When Tony and Amanda broke up, however, Amanda and Charlie got together.

While Blair went to Oxford, Falconer went to Cambridge. But they met up again in 1976 when they found themselves both working as barristers in the same building.

Soon afterwards, Blair moved into Falconer's flat in Wandsworth, south London, making them both activists in the same local Labour Party.

Lord Falconer with Lottery tickets
The Dome, bailed out by Lottery money
They shared a passion for rock music, and Lord Falconer is still proud of the fact that he can tell you the names of the B-sides of practically every hit single of the 1960s.

Falconer's career in commercial law prospered. In 1985 he married Marianna Hildyard, another successful barrister whose diplomat father had been British Ambassador to Mexico.

They became neighbours of the Blairs in fashionable Islington and the four legal eagles became dinner companions.

By the 1990s, Lord Falconer's earnings alone were reckoned to be around 500,000 a year.

His reputation was of a man with a razor sharp mind, who could both master a brief and get to the nub of a problem very quickly. All who work with him in government, regardless of their politics, agree he is an engaging personality and entertaining raconteur.

Lord Falconer in hard hat
The job has required a hard hat and a thick skin
His wealth, though, has caused him political problems.

Just before the 1997 election made a bid for political legitimacy by applying for selection as Labour's parliamentary candidate in Dudley East. He was advised by the selection panel to withdraw his four children from fee-paying schools.

When he refused he was told Labour was not in the business of fielding candidates who spent more in a year on buying their children out of state education than most people earned in the same period.

Last year he infuriated pensioners during a visit to a Southampton day-care centre after being harangued by a 76-year-old angry at what she saw as a derisory 75p-a-week government rise in pensions.

She asked him if he could live on her benefit of less than 100 a week. He claimed he could.

Lord Falconer in jovial mood
The Dome has held few laughs for Lord Falconer
His good friend Tony Blair's words on the Dome's fateful opening last new year's eve that it was "a triumph of confidence over cynicism" must now sound, to Lord Falconer, as empty as its ticket office.

And even if he should escape the chopping block in the wake of the NAO report, MPs on the Commons culture select committee have already signalled their intention to launch yet another inquiry into the Dome's litany of troubles.

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