By Severin Carrell
William Hague has threatened to block a move to sanction £179m in emergency grants to the Millennium Dome, in an attempt to exploit Tony Blair's growing embarrassment over the project.
The Tory leader said last night that opposition MPs and peers would vote against an order in Parliament extending the funding life of the Millennium Commission to cover its emergency lottery grants of £179m to the attraction in Greenwich, south-east London, this year. The order is a standard procedure and the passing of it a technicality. But Mr Hague said: "I have no time for more money for the Dome."
His threat, which will be withdrawn only if the Prime Minister sacks his close friend and the "minister for the Dome", Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is calculated to highlight the financial and political failure of the Dome project.
After being trumpeted by the Government as a triumph of modern Britain, it has taken £229m in extra grants since 1997 to help cover the running costs and overspends of the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC). Two chairmen, a chief executive and a director have lost their jobs. Some observers now believe the structure could be demolished next year.
Ministers, including Peter Mandelson, now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland but formerly responsible for the Dome, were accused of increasing costs and delays by interfering in the attraction's contents. Mr Blair then insisted on one million free school visits, thus cutting paying visitor numbers and pushing up costs.
Despite visitor satisfaction rates of 85 per cent, the Dome has failed to ignite popular imagination. Its projected visitor total has been cut four times this year, from 12 million to 4.5 million. With £628m of lottery money now spent there, the subsidy could be as high as £120 per paying visitor.
Lord Falconer's attempts to justify these grants as part of the regeneration of the Greenwich peninsula were substantially weakened when the Japanese bank Nomura last week abandoned its £800m plan to build a hi-tech amusement park on the site.
Nomura was dismayed to learn that NMEC had been trading insolvently for up to seven weeks, had no clear register of its assets, had expensive and open-ended contracts with suppliers and had suppressed doubts about its visitor figures.
The crisis took another turn yesterday after revelations that the police were investigating an alleged fraud by a south-east London company and attempts by a former NMEC employee to sell confidential documents to the press. Metropolitan Police fraud squad officers are investigating allegations that the contractor was improperly awarded a services contract, thought to be worth up to £1m. The internal papers were allegedly stolen about six months ago.
Attempts by Lord Falconer to sell the Dome to the consortium Legacy, run by Robert Bourne, a Labour-supporting property developer, have also led to confusion. English Partnerships, which owns the site, is simultaneously trying to decide how the Dome should be sold and on what terms.
By Marie Woolf
Nothing better demonstrates the shredding of New Labour's reputation for sound economic management than the way in which a rumour, begun in Wales, led yesterday to the nationwide resumption of panic buying at petrol stations.
Reverberations of the crisis have also been felt throughout Whitehall, from the Home Office - where doubts have been cast on Jack Straw's ability to use the police to control protest - to the Treasury, which has been forced to defend Gordon Brown's political judgement.
While the Chancellor continues to rule out tax cuts for ordinary motorists, as a general election approaches, ministers sit behind closed doors with oil executives and the police seeking reassurance that the blockades will not happen again.
For a government so obsessed by its public image and gauging public opinion, it has appeared peculiarly out of touch. Tony Blair, at the beginning of last week, seemedmore concerned with IT announcements than the growing fuel protests. Downing Street fundamentally underestimated their impact.
The Government miscalculated in believing that the protesters were a fringe movement of lorry drivers, farmers and other disparate groups who were not natural Labour supporters anyway. In fact the blockades of tractors and lorries reflected concerns from a far broader constituency of Middle Britain motorists who had been complaining for months that the price of petrol was too high.
Mr Blair gambled on a hardline stance, but it soon became apparent to Downing Street aides that demonising the picketers was an unwise strategy because of public sympathy for their cause. So the Government struck a more conciliatory pose, and ministers insisted on radio and television that the Government was listening. But this seemed at odds with the Chancellor's tough line and his insistence that he would not alter economic policy in response to "short-term protests".
At the weekend Mr Brown's aides were spinning the line that the polls reflected huge support for the Chancellor's injection of billions into health and education while the Government's lead in the polls steadily slipped away.
The Treasury looked increasingly obstinate and myopic. Ministers were privately furious that Mr Brown would not help to end the crisis and rescue the Government with a popular fuel tax cut.
Yesterday Treasury ministers suggested that ordinary motorists would not benefit from changes to fuel duty and that a rebate would be directed at hauliers instead. Such intransigence could have damaging political implications for the Government.
As yesterday's queues showed, the mood is volatile and, if the Chancellor does not respond positively to the fuel protesters' 60-day deadline, they are likely to carry out their threat to man the blockades again.
By John Curtice
Just as three years of sky-high opinion poll leads never guaranteed that Labour would win the next election, so three bad polls in a row do not mean that all is lost. But any thoughts that the Government's poll crisis is a temporary blip should be dispensed with.
Yesterday's ICM poll, which put Labour four points behind the Conservatives, appeared to suggest that the party's difficulties were even greater than indicated by the two polls published on Sunday.
Throughout this parliament ICM's polls have consistently been more favourable to the Tories than those of the other pollsters. Indeed the drop in Labour's vote since the last ICM poll is, at 10 points, lower than the 15-point drop suggested by Mori on Sunday.
But the ICM poll is significant for a different reason. Sunday's figures came from special one-off surveys. Not regular monthly polls. This meant their low poll leads might just be the result of doing the survey differently.
However, yesterday's ICM poll was part of a regular monthly series with an established track record. And it shows there has been a seven-point swing from Labour to the Conservatives since the middle of August. Not so much a blip as a sea-change.
Indeed, the immediate damage the fuel crisis has inflicted on Labour appears to be even greater than that suffered by the Tories after Black Wednesday in September 1992. On that occasion ICM recorded just a one-point drop in Tory support in its first post-crisis poll; Labour's loss now is 10 points. Mori recorded a four-point drop eight years ago, compared with a 15-point fall now.
Both polls put Labour on a lower vote share than they did the Conservatives immediately after Black Wednesday.
Confidence in Tony Blair's government drained away last week as fast as the petrol pumps emptied. But it will take more than a full tank of petrol for confidence to be restored.
John Curtice is deputy director of the ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social TrendsReuse content