The future of the Millennium Dome was thrown into chaos last night as the US billionaire embroiled in controversy over his relationship with John Prescott threatened to pull the plug on £250m worth of investment if his bid to build a supercasino there is rejected.
Philip Anschutz’s threat came amid fresh questions over the Deputy Prime Minister’s acceptance of corporate hospitality, following news he enjoyed a free VIP ticket to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone at the height of a political battle over the race’s future in this country. He went on to take charge of the government’s role in trying to retain the prestigious fixture at the Northamptonshire track after Formula One chiefs threatened to take it away.
Does anyone now seriously believe that the casino was never discussed at any of Prescott’s seven meeting with Anschutz? The message here seems perfectly clear – give the casino licence or I take my ball home.
Taking a closer look at the Observer article, we find this comment:
A spokesman for his company said that while he had planned to invest £600m to redevelop the Dome to include a concert arena, casino and waterfront leisure complex, if he did not get the casino rights ‘it’s more limited. There will be less exhibition space, no theatre and no hotel’ – and only £350m would then be spent.
No hotel? That will certainly be news to English Partnerships who, according to the National Audit Office, are working entirely under the impression that the development will include:
Hotel – Class C1
A hotel will be located in the northwest corner of the site on the land known as the Dome Waterfront. This will be up to 60,000 sq.m. providing up to 630 keys together with associated conferencing, banqueting and support facilities, including 400 car parking spaces.
Reading the NAO report amongst others, the line pushed heavily by English Partnerships throughout has been that the hotel develop is not contingent on the award of a casino licence, and yet here we have a spokesman for AEG making it clear that their interpretation of the deal amounts to ‘No casino, no hotel’.
So what’s really going on here? Is the hotel conditional on the award of a casino licence or not, and if it is, when was this agreed – if it was ever agreed – and with whom?
Once again, we seem to be in very murky waters, where what’s been stated publicly and what appears might have been agreed privately are two rather different things, and again all roads lead back to the same questions:
Was Phil Aschutz either told, or led to believe, that his company would be awarded a casino licence as part of the deal for redevelopment of the Dome, and if so, by whom? Prescott and ODPM? DCMS? English Partnerships? Or someone else in the government – remember, it was Charlie Falconer who was running the show when the deal with Meridian Delta for overall redevelopment of the site, and AEG for development of the Dome and its associated hotel (or hotel/casino) was cut – and we all know who Charlie’s big pal is, don’t we?
That’s the other question that needs to be asked his – is Prescott really the main man and prime mover in all this – or is he just the middleman and delivery boy on a deal that was cut by someone else. And if so, how does this relate to the large sums of money that US-based casino operators are alleged to have spent on lobbying for a relaxtion in UK gambling laws, as related here by Simon Jenkins…
Anschutz and big Australian, South African and American casino interests have reportedly spent some $100m on a campaign to open up Britain to big-time gambling. Tony Blair’s government was targeted as "the soft moral underbelly of Europe" for an industry barred from most European countries. The campaign of the British Casino Association was led by the redoubtable Lady Cobham. Despite minimal public demand for super-casinos, Blair was persuaded to move gambling from the puritanical Home Office to the more malleable Culture Department. The latter leapt into bed with the gamblers as swiftly as it did with the brewers and the BBC. Officials cruised the casinos of the world arm-in-arm with MPs, outrageously in the pay of gaming lobbyists. The head of Whitehall’s gambling division, Gideon Hoffman, even offered to leave and work for those who were lobbying him. This being modern British government, nobody batted an eyelid at all this.
The outcome was a proposal negotiated with lobbyists to allow one monopoly super-casino in every city, carving up the market between the big players. Such fury did it evoke from anti-gambling charities that the government backed off, flip-flopping between one casino in every city or just one in total (perhaps in Blackpool) or one big and eight small ones or perhaps many more under Prescott’s laissez-faire directives. Hence the flurry of messages revealed yesterday between Prescott, under pressure from Anschutz, and the Culture Department, making a mockery of denials by the gambling minister, Richard Caborn. When the government proposed an independent panel to recommend where casinos might go, the lobbyists ensured that ministers (coded as "parliament") could overrule it.
Just who is making policy here – the British government or a merry little band of foreign casino operators?
And as predicted here, on Wednesday…
…if you were involved in any of the seven rival bids to AEG’s, then you could easily be forgiven for thinking that maybe, just maybe, the fix has gone in and the outcome of the decision on awarding the licence for the one super casino that the government is allowing is, shall we say, looking suspiciously like a bit of a foregone conclusion.
We now find…
The disclosures have also angered Anschutz’s rival bidders. Havering council in east London, whose bid was rejected at shortlist stage by the independent panel considering them, had appealed even before the Prescott revelations and is considering legal action.
The Labour MP, Graham Stringer, who has campaigned on behalf of a Manchester bid still in the running, also criticised Prescott’s ‘extremely bad judgment’ in visiting the ranch.
Meanwhile in the Observer, Ned Temko sticks solidly to discussing Guido’s role in proceedings, thereby reinforcing the line that bloggers are little more than malicious peddlars of gossip and tittle-tattle, while stolidly avoiding any mention of those of us who’ve spent the week digging (successfully) after the casino story, a story which the dead trees now seem determined to claim as their own, if much of today’s reportage and comment, including this from Matthew Ancona in the Torygraph, is anything to go by…
But this is not the only potential conflict of interest that should be investigated. Mr Prescott’s former department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, was closely involved in the original sale of the Dome to Meridian Delta, the consortium including Mr Anschutz’s group, AEG. As his ministerial colleagues debated how to share the prospective proceeds of the sale between Lottery and Exchequer, Mr Prescott impatiently urged them to get on with it. He would argue that his over-riding priority was to ensure that nothing jeopardised the deal.
Which, of course, you are welcome to compare with this:
What this is about is a government that has a direct pecuniary (i.e. financial) interest in seeing AEG get the super casino licence, and one compounded even further by the fact that it is the same department (Culture, Media and Sport) that made the deal with AEG for the use of the Dome, that will now issue the licence for the super casino.
Now some may see that as a canny bit of business – that ’some’ certainly will not include the seven other bidders for the same licence who, when the penny drops, are likely to notice that they’re bidding against a competitor (AEG) who has a considerable advantage over them due to a deal they’ve already cut with government for use of the Millennium Dome.
Which I posted here on Wednesday evening….
Temko, incidentally, also includes in his article about as unrepresentative a list of political blogs as you’ll find anywhere in which he includes Guido and Iain Dale (obviously as both are mentioned in his piece) plus Harry’s Place – which he’s describes as ‘iconoclastic left-of-centre’ (huh???) – before going on to add Nick Robinson’s official BBC blog, Mad Mel Phillips (another paid journo) and David Milliband’s opinion-free list of offical press releases, which masquerades as a blog.
Great selection, Ned… made all the more laughable by its appearance under the section heading ‘citizen journalism’.
Why, one wonders, did Ned choose to pick out Harry’s Place of all the other left-wing blogs he could have featured – not just myself, but Chicken Yoghurt, Backing Blair, Blood & Treasure, Blairwatch, Not Little England and Yorkshire Ranter (who saw this coming more than a year ago), to name but a few – could it just possibly be that out of all the above, only Harry’s Place has had absolutely nothing to say on the subject of casinos, Domes and Colorado billionaires?
If, as Temko suggests, Prescott is a ‘dead man walking’ then its way too early to assign the credit for the scalp to Guido, as the clincher here is almost certainly not going to be his extra-marital activities – unless it can be shown that he’s actually shagged Anschutz on the quiet as well – but evidence that proves the existence of murky under-the-counter deals, with Anschutz, in relation to siting the one super casino that is currently permitted by law.
At its most sanctimonious, the MSM has a tendency to deride bloggers as parasites riding on their back, despite having been caught out on several occasions lifting the work of bloggers without attribution and yet, when it comes to the casino story, its been bloggers in the lead pretty much all the way.
So who are the parasites, now?