Blame for D-Day debacle could fall on Sproat

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The Independent Online
THE debacle and retreat over the D-Day celebrations has confirmed the impression of John Major's government being accident-prone and incompetent.

The electoral fall-out on 10 Downing Street will add to Mr Major's difficulties in the local and European elections, which could mark the beginning of the end for his own leadership.

But there were strong signs that Iain Sproat and the Department of National Heritage were being prepared as the scapegoats for the Government's public relations disaster.

The Prime Minister's Office again emphasised that the detailed planning for the D-Day anniversary events, and the retreat in the face of criticism, was the Department of National Heritage's responsibility.

Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, is widely expected to be dropped from the Cabinet in the reshuffle. But the minister directly engaged in the D- Day planning was Mr Sproat.

When it was suggested that he had been putting as much energy into the events as Eisenhower had put into the original Operation Overlord, one official said: 'We are not putting up a statue to Mr Sproat.'

However, the opposition parties were in no doubt that Mr Major should shoulder the blame for allowing it to get out of hand. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: 'Mr Major, not for the first time, has misjudged the mood of the nation on this one.'

The Prime Minister had privately had the D-Day anniversary in mind for some time. He told friends after attending the anniversary of the battle of El Alamein in October 1992 that the D-Day commemoration would be bigger.

A steering committee was set up under Lord Cranborne, the minister for defence, to co-ordinate the planning between the departments of defence, national heritage and the Foreign Office.

Lord Bramall, the former Chief of Defence Staff, was drafted on to the committee to represent the Normandy veterans.

The defence aspects of the plans, including the Portsmouth review, involving the Queen, Mr Major and President Clinton, have escaped difficulty with the veterans. The cause of their anxiety has been the civilian 'celebrations', including the jamboree in Hyde Park.

They were handled by the national heritage department, who hired a public relations firm run by Sir Tim Bell for pounds 62,000 to produce and develop the ideas for the national celebrations. Local authorities were given a list of 14 ideas, including sandcastle competitions.

The involvement of Sir Tim - a trusted adviser to Baroness Thatcher and frequent guest at Cabinet parties - was seen as a clear indication that the Government saw political advantage in pumping up the 'feel-good factor' with celebrations across the country.

Downing Street has denied any link between the anniversary on 6 June and the European elections on 9 June. One official said it was nonsense to suggest the date of Normandy landings was planned 50 years ago with eye to the Tories' election troubles.

The events may have got out of hand, with an advertised 'spam fritter frying contest' which turned out to be a misunderstanding contributing to the unsavoury whiff of political exploitation of a solemn event, better left until 1995 and the 50th anniversary of VE Day.