The PM, the peer, and the pounds 250m dome

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The Independent Online
SPECULATION is growing

that Tony Blair made a dramatic personal intervention to save the pounds 590m Greenwich Millennium Exhibition, the centrepiece of which is designed by his close friend, the architect and Labour peer, Lord Rogers.

Whitehall sources say that until last Tuesday, and a meeting of the Cabinet's home and social affairs committee, the exhibition, complete with Lord Rogers' pounds 250m dome, was doomed. Even before the general election, said an official close to the planning of the celebrations, a head of steam had been building up among senior Labour figures against the project.

Jack Cunningham, the then Shadow Heritage Secretary, and Gordon Brown as Shadow Chancellor, were opposed to it, on the grounds it was a Conservative project designed to put the seal on the party's flagship redevelopment of London's Docklands, it cost too much, only London would benefit and, anyway, was only temporary since it is due to be pulled down after five years.

Once in power, feelings hardened, with the Treasury, now led by Mr Brown and his Chief Secretary, Alistair Darling, pointing out the money could be better spent elsewhere. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, was opposed - although, as the minister in charge of transport policy, he could see the benefits a new river bus service to Greenwich might offer. Chris Smith, the new Heritage Secretary, was also against.

Ministers and officials were bracing themselves for the project to be scrapped. Then, last Tuesday, Peter Mandelson, the minister without portfolio, who sits on the Cabinet sub-committee, argued forcibly in its favour.

There was little doubt, among those present and in Whitehall, on whose behalf Mr Mandelson was speaking: Mr Blair wanted to save the Exhibition.

Casting around for a reason, officials and ministers have pointed to the Prime Minister's close friendship with Lord Rogers. The Labour peer, who, it is believed, would receive around 3 per cent in a fee from the pounds 250m dome, is a New Labour inner circle member. Mr Blair admires his work, especially his cultural monuments like the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The Blairs dine at the River Cafe, the restaurant run by Lady Rogers. On 2 May, after their election victory, the River Cafe sent a meal and cook book to the Blairs' home.

The behind-the-scenes split leaves Mr Smith, according to one source, in a "very, very difficult position" caught between the Treasury and Number 10. That has not been helped by the presence on his team of Mark Fisher, the arts minister - another friend of Lord Rogers. Mr Fisher wrote a book about the future of London with the architect.

It is still possible for the Exhibition to be scrapped: building work is due to begin on 25 June and a final decision must be made before then. Mr Brown is likely to repeat his opposition on cost grounds. However, Mr Blair's support is expected to guarantee its future.

While the exact contents of the dome remain a closely-guarded secret, designers are now working on a more populist plan - "more theme parky", was how one official described it. Attractions are believed to include rides and interactive displays.