The Mandelson Affair: Millennium Dome - Dream of following grandfather ends

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The Independent Online
UNTIL YESTERDAY, when people talked of Mandelson's folly they were referring to the Millennium Dome.

Now that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has resigned, the "tacky theme park" and "white elephant" has lost its most passionate supporter.

Peter Mandelson cast himself as the saviour of the Dome. Like his grandfather Herbert Morrison, who master-minded the 1951 Festival of Britain while carrying out his duties as Clement Attlee's Foreign Secretary, Mr Mandelson wanted to prove that he too could organise a national extravaganza.

His political opponents felt his position conflicted with his duties as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

The Dome will now be overseen by Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, until a replacement can be found. Stephen Bayley, the former creative director of the Dome who resigned this year over political interference in the project and a fall-out with Mr Mandelson, said: "It does amuse me hugely that the year began with my resignation and ends with his. I don't want to appear to be gloating but..."

Mr Mandelson's role in the Dome was as the holder of the Government's single share in the New Millennium Experience Company, (NMEC) which organises the project in Greenwich, south London. But his departure raises serious questions over the ability of the NMEC to raise the millions from private business needed to make the project work. It is also more questionable that the Dome will be ready on time.

Mr Mandelson always maintained he saw no conflict between his political and his Dome roles. The assurance came because he was aware British Airways was one of the sponsors of the Dome and that the Department of Trade and Industry was one of the bodies due to rule on the possible threat to competitiveness of BA's proposed link-up with American Airlines.

The NMEC, however, insisted Mr Mandelson was not involved in negotiating or procuring sponsorship contracts for the Dome. "All contracts were handled by the NMEC in-house sponsorship team," the company said last night.

But Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative spokesman on culture said: "The news that Peter Mandelson has relinquished his responsibility for the Millennium Dome is the best Christmas present the New Millennium Experience Company could have had.

"Ever since Mr Mandelson took control, the project has suffered from allegations of conflicting interest, made worse by his appointment as Trade and Industry Secretary earlier this year."

Jennie Page, the chief executive of the NMEC, said that despite Mr Mandelson's departure it was business as usual. "He has devoted a great deal of time and effort to the Dome, for which everyone here is extremely grateful," she said. The NMEC says it is close to gathering all the pounds 150m sponsorship it needs for the Dome, due to open on 31 December 1999.

Whether Mr Mandelson attends the celebrations remains to be seen. He has said the Dome will be a chance to "reflect on the pride we have in our past and the confidence we have in our future". Unfortunately for him, it may simply provide a chance to reflect on his downfall.

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