Ministers distance themselves from Dome of 'disaster'

MILLENNIUM EXHIBITION: It will, says Clare Short, soon be 'put out of its misery'. Then what? Can you help decide its future?
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Tony Blair is facing a growing split within the Cabinet over the Millennium Dome after Chris Smith became the second senior minister to disassociate himself from the crisis-hit attraction.

Tony Blair is facing a growing split within the Cabinet over the Millennium Dome after Chris Smith became the second senior minister to disassociate himself from the crisis-hit attraction.

Mr Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, confirmed yesterday that he had argued against building the Dome in its present form when the Government pressed ahead with the £758m project after winning power in 1997.

Although he insisted the Dome, in Greenwich, south-east London, was still a popular success, his remarks gave support to criticisms of the project by Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development. On Thursday night, she said the Government was wrong to build the Dome.

Ms Short, the MP for Birmingham Ladywood, told the audience on BBC 1's Question Time programme that the Dome was "awful" and had become a "disaster", and should be demolished. "Thankfully, very soon it will be put out of its misery," she said.

Asked about her remarks, Mr Smith said her views were well known. He insisted that many of the attraction's detractors had never visited it, but added: "It is very much on the record... that when the decision to go ahead with it was made in June 1997 I argued for something rather smaller and rather more wholly focused on educational work."

The timing of their remarks will deeply irritate the Prime Minister's officials, as they were seized upon by opposition parties as evidence that Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the minister for the Dome and a close ally of Mr Blair's, was becoming increasingly isolated.

Earlier on Thursday, Martin O'Neill, a senior Labour backbencher and chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Trade and Industry, signalled growing dismay among Labour MPs about the crisis by suggesting Lord Falconer should "consider his political future".

William Hague, the Conservative leader, again insisted yesterday that Lord Falconer should resign. Peter Ainsworth, the Tory culture spokesman, claimed that ministers were playing "the blame game" in an attempt to distances themselves from the mounting political disaster.

"The Government are in disarray over the Dome," he said, adding: "There is no room in Lord Falconer's political coffin for any more nails but Clare Short seems to have thrown the first handful of dirt."

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on the Dome, said Mr Blair should publicly defend the project. He said Mrs Short had said something "which no government minister has the courage to admit - the Dome is a disaster and a national embarrassment".

With a growing air of weariness about the controversy, Lord Falconer insisted yesterday he would continue in with his "very challenging" post until the project reached the end of its 12-month programme and had been successfully sold on. "The right course for me is to stay with the job to ensure an orderly conclusion is reached to the Dome project," he told BBC Radio 4's World At One.

Supported by Downing Street, he sought to downplay Ms Short's criticisms, saying her opposition was "no secret". "She has expressed a view. I think it was widely known that was her view. It was a view which had been expressed before," he said. "But it doesn't in any way detract from the fact that the Government decided to go ahead with the Dome and we are continuing to support it.".

A spokeswoman for No 10 insisted the Dome was the most popular paying visitor attraction in the country. "As Clare herself pointed out, those who go there like it. The important thing now is to tie down a deal which ensures there is a legacy. In the meantime, a large number of people continue to enjoy it," she said.

Downing Street officials believe that Ms Short's comments will also be seen to reflect significant local resentment in Birmingham about the decision not to site the Dome in the Midlands. The city was beaten by north Greenwich in a competition to house the attraction when the Tories were in power.

However, the Government is also bracing itself for a damning report by the National Audit Office into the New Millennium Experience Company's management of the attraction, which has now taken up £628m in lottery money, but slashed its visitor targets from 12 million to 4.5 million this year. The NAO report, due to be published by early November, will be followed by a Public Accounts Committee inquiry, which is holding parliamentary hearings on 22 November.

Public concern about the sums being invested in the project is also deepening. Ruth Lea, policy director of the Institute of Directors, said yesterday she would bulldoze the Dome and auction off its contents. "Its disastrous performance is a potent symbol of the tackiness and rootless vacuity of 'Cool Britannia'. I would redevelop the site for housing, sports facilities and small businesses," she said.