Blair and Prescott isolated over the Dome fiasco

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair and John Prescott were left increasingly isolated last night when the Government came under intense pressure to justify its handling of the Millennium Dome.

Tony Blair and John Prescott were left increasingly isolated last night when the Government came under intense pressure to justify its handling of the Millennium Dome.

As evidence emerged that cabinet ministers were distancing themselves from the political crisis surrounding the Dome, William Hague called on the Prime Minister to apologise publicly for "mismanaging" the £758m attraction in Greenwich, south-east London. The Dome, he claimed, "has become a laughing stock of the world".

The Tory leader's attack was intended to stir up public discontent over the decision to give the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC), a further £47m from lottery funds to stave off insolvency.

The operator has brought in a new executive chairman, David James, who revealed on Tuesday the new target for paying visitors was 4.5 million, about one-third the original 12 million. He also claimed the NMEC had failed properly to account for its assets and the £28m costs of closing it in January.

Despite the direct criticism by Mr James of their handling of its finances, many NMEC board members refused yesterday to answer questions about the controversy. The remainder were uncontactable.

The Independent contacted 16 past and present board members, including David Quarmby, the former chairman, Ken Robinson, the former operations director, Ruth Mackenzie, a former member, and Len Duvall, former leader of Greenwich council, but they refused to comment.

Speaking after a conference in Glasgow, the Tory leader said Mr Blair happily talked about the Dome last year when it "would turn in a profit for Britain and be the envy of the world". Now, however, "it is haemorrhaging money, it is the laughing stock of the world and I think it's time he apologised to the people of Britain and somebody in the Government took responsibility."

His comments were rejected by Michael Heseltine, the former Tory deputy prime minister and now a Millennium commissioner. He accused Mr Hague of scoring "easy political points" by calling for the Dome to be closed, when that would punish its creditors and 2,000 staff. "We looked at all the options as a Millennium Commission and there is no financial gain to be made from closing early," Mr Heseltine said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Nevertheless, the Tories launched an advertisement attacking Mr Prescott's support for the Dome on the internet yesterday. It showed the Deputy Prime Minister alongside the Dome, and quoted him saying in July 1997 that "if we can't make this work, we're not much of a government".

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the minister for the Dome, was also urged to resign in a letter from Peter Ainsworth, the Tory culture spokesman. "He must take responsibility for this shameful waste of money," Mr Ainsworth said, echoing demands from the Liberal Democrats and the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn.

Meanwhile, evidence that ministers have distanced themselves from the controversy came in an ITN survey, which showedonly three of the Cabinet's 22 ministers have gone on private visits to the Dome. "Don't forget not all of us were in favour of this," one minister told The Independent.

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence, and Andrew Smith, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, all took their families. Mr Blair and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, only went on official visits.

The finding follows disclosures that just five cabinet members supported building the Dome at a crucial meeting in June 1997. The rest either opposed the project or were neutral, but failed to muster any significant opposition to it. Mr Blair, Mr Prescott, Mo Mowlam, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Harriet Harman, then Secretary of State for Social Security, backed it.

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