Labour’s Lucy Powell shuts down rumours of Tony Blair returning
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Previously classified documents held in the National Archives reveal Mr Blair’s Labour Government briefly considered scrapping the Millennium Dome just two years before it eventually opened. According to correspondence from Jonathan Powell, the ex-chief of staff to the Prime Minister, the construction of the ‘Princess Diana Centre’ was set to replace the Dome.
It was suggested the 35,000 square metre site would mirror the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
It would include a ballet school, theme park, children’s hospital and even a hotel with casino.
The plans to build the ‘Princess Diana Centre’ followed a rise in opposition to the Dome project.
Blair had inherited the construction of the Millennium Dome, now called the O2 Arena, from John Major’s Conservative Government but some of his frontbenchers had expressed concerns about the cost of a 20,000-seater indoor exhibition centre.
After its completion the O2 Arena had cost £758million.
Peter Mandelson, then Minister without Portfolio, was said to have personally intervened to fend off dissent from around the Cabinet table.
But concerns about the Millennium Dome continued during the first year of Blair’s Government.
In late August, the Labour strategist Peter Hyman warned the Prime Minister’s chief of staff the O2 Arena would be “a pointless waste of money with no lasting legacy or worthwhile purpose”.
Following Diana’s death on August 31, an opportunity had arisen to replace the Dome project.
One Number 10 aide even claimed “Diana’s death could give us a semi-plausible excuse to cancel” the building of the Millennium Dome.
Just days after, Sam Chisholm, a Millennium Dome board member, told Labour spin-doctor Alistair Campbell the O2 Arena could “be completely refashioned, the site extended, to accommodate, for example, a hospital, businesses, charities, private residences, and the whole thing named ‘The Princess Diana Centre’”.
Chisholm later told Mr Powell: “A scheme like this would certainly meet the public mood and it gets us off the hook of the existing plan at Greenwich with all its problems.”
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Powell later passed on this message to Blair in a memo.
Mr Chisholm described the new plans as becoming “the eighth wonder of the world” and judged it would be a “pretty big plus” that it would go down poorly with the Royal Family.
Subsequently, Chisholm submitted a written proposal on September 9 where he wrote: “As the millennium will last for 1,000 years so should this memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales last for 1,000 years”.
Mr Chisolm was among the most supportive of the plans as he concluded: “This will become unquestionably the most exciting tourist centre in the world and should confirm London’s position as the most cutting edge city on Earth.”
Nonetheless, “substantial disadvantages” soon emerged, including the fact the ‘Diana Centre’ would not be complete by the turn of the Millennium and that it would struggle to attract the same level of business sponsorship.
There were also concerns that Chisolm’s means of funding the so-called ‘Diana Centre’ were not practical.
Jonathan Powell told the Prime Minister that Chisolm’s proposals contained some “loopy ideas”, including selling British passports.
By October, the plan to build the ‘Diana Centre’ had been shelved following fears it would put off donors who had favoured the construction of the Millennium Dome.
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