Ministers were forced on to the defensive over the introduction of US-style super-casinos, insisting yesterday that „Las Vegas is not coming to Great Britain“.
Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, could not hide her exasperation at reports suggesting the government planned to relax the limits on the number of new casinos. Making it „crystal clear“ that no such increases would be considered before the next general election, Ms Jowell told MPs she could express this „in 50 different languages but the message would be the same“.
There is a clear political rationale for this assurance. The creation of new casinos, under the liberalising regime of the Gambling Act, is not a vote winner – fewer than a third of people believe it is a good idea, according to a YouGov poll in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph.
Critically, it also appears to lack support from Gordon Brown. The chancellor has kept a clear distance and has no appetite for becoming embroiled in an expansion in the number of casinos, say Treasury insiders.
There was also a collective – if private – sigh of relief from ministers that Greenwich was not chosen for the super-casino site. Its selection would have inevitably led to renewed media accusations of „sleaze“ over links between John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, and Philip Anschutz, the US multi-billionaire head of AEG, the casinos operator linked to the Greenwich bid.
Manchester’s victory carries no such difficult political connotations. Ms Jowell faced questions from a slew of disappointed Labour MPs representing Blackpool and nearby constituencies. But she was able to point to the independence of the panel process. The government will not overrule the advisory panel’s recommendations in a vote expected early in March.
Any backlash within the party is likely to be quelled by the fact that another north-west Labour heartland – Manchester – will gain new jobs and investment from the super-casino.
Ministers were at pains yesterday to stress the checks and controls that will apply to the new casinos. „Las Vegas-style tricks of the trade will not be allowed. There will be no free alcohol to induce more gambling and there will be no pumped oxygen to keep players awake,“ Ms Jowell told the Commons.
These assurances failed to prevent the main opposition parties from accusing the government of caving in to pressure from casinocompanies without considering the impact on problem -gambling.