Leading article: Political follies under the Dome

IT'S ONLY a dome, Prime Minister, only a shell of a building. At best it's only going to accommodate a leisure event. Does that really justify the preachifying and the chiding and the hyperbole Mr Blair served up yesterday? He compared the Dome to St Paul's, and that is fatuous - not because Richard Rogers is not a fine architect who might conceivably deserve comparison with Christopher Wren - but because the cathedral was built in a Christian age to glorify God, and the transcendental purpose of the Dome is... what? New Labour offers no secular religion. We are - to our credit - these days an incredulous people. Does the Prime Minister intend us to worship at the shrine of technology or try to recover a modernist sensibility in a post-modern age? Politicians tend to make very poor midwives to new world-views. It just won't do for the Prime Minister and his acolytes to talk in these quasi-fundamentalist terms: this was conceived as a temporary structure to house a one-off exhibition. He will be lucky if it works out as well as the Festival of Britain in 1951. The Greenwich Dome will succeed if it provides a good, Disneyesque day out. To put the authority of the British state in play for things as evanescent as those is sheer folly.

The Dome's fate rests on the myriad details of leisure business planning. This is for professionals. Yet what we had yesterday was a Cabinet minister - Mr Mandelson - behaving as if he were the project's chief executive. The problem is not just that he is his own worst spokesperson. His serpentine answers; his belligerence; his brittle amour propre: as a political performer he is a liability. But why is he out there on the high wire at all? A legacy from the Tories was the notion of arm's length government. You set up an "agency", give its chief executive full powers and as a politician you (in theory) wind it up and walk away. Politicians are notoriously bad as managers; it is in their own best interests to stand well back. Instead, the Dome project has sucked them in. Its management structure is a mish-mash of political and executive responsibilities. Jenni Page, the chief executive of the company, passes the buck. Lord Rogers (one of the "litmus" testers) says a single creative director is desperately needed. Mr Mandelson (sole shareholder) disagrees. And confusion reigns.

Messrs Blair and Mandelson, admittedly having inherited an administrative mess from the Tories, have compounded the problem by appearing to take personal responsibility. They are too intimate with those private-sector sponsors who have been persuaded to cough up (including, ominously, Rupert Murdoch's Sky - we already know the quid pro quo). As a result the necessarily limited political capital of this government has been strewn profligately over the muddy site at Greenwich. Instead of keeping its powder dry for the important things, New Labour's political fate is being inextricably bound up with events over which mere politicians can have no control - matters of imagination, taste, Jubilee Line signalling.

Yet it is us that Mr Blair reproves. Sounding like a cross between a Baptist minister high in his pulpit and Lady Thatcher in her most grating "Rejoice!" mode, he commands us to respect daring and excellence. It is difficult not to react defensively to his stern criticism of carpers and nay-sayers. There is a national trait which the media carries to extremes, sniffing at greatness. And the Dome is a fantastic construction. The Independent sits, literally, on top of the site and daily we see the spider's web of cables being spun between the rocket-like girders. When the skin is added next month it will become a circus tent of giant proportions. Yesterday's package of contents was alternately bizarre, mind-expanding and banal. So much will depend on the finish, the quality of materials but also the training provided to staff - whose recruitment is being left desperately late.

Of course we have to wish the whole thing well. But we wish this government well too in its central purposes. We therefore also wish that Tony Blair had not yesterday identified himself and New Labour quite as intimately, quite as passionately with a project which so easily could fall into the pits of mediocrity and mismanagement and consequently provoke deep public revulsion.