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Blair, Ecclestone, F1 and Tobacco... the truth emerges

NEWS STORY
13/10/2008

According to the Daily Telegraph, papers it (finally) obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, cast a new light on the infamous tobacco saga that was to become a portent of the sleaze that was to typify Tony Blair and New Labour.

Within weeks of Labour winning the 1997 election, Health Secretary Frank Dobson announced that the government was to ban all sports sponsorship by tobacco companies.

However, following a secret donation of 1m to the Labour Party in January of that year, talks continued throughout the summer as Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley sought a way to have F1 given special exemption.

In November, the Government announced proposals to exempt F1 from the ban following threats that the sport might otherwise have to leave Britain. At the same time, the Labour Party sought advice from public standards watchdog Sir Patrick Neill regarding Ecclestone's donation, as Chancellor Gordon Brown claimed not to know about it.

The Labour Party, on the advice of Sir Patrick, offered to return Ecclestone's 1m, subsequently claiming that Ecclestone had offered the money after the General Election.

Within days, Blair appeared on BBC TV's On The Record to apologise for his government's handling of the saga, but denied that there was any kind of cover up, insisting: "I'm a pretty straight kind of guy."

The money was returned to Ecclestone who subsequently cashed the cheque in March 1998. To mark the saga, the F1 supremo commissioned a piece of art which reflected the pile of money, it still has pride of place in his Knightsbridge office.

Lord Neill chaired the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which looked into party funding and the question of whether Labour "sold" access to ministers. It subsequently recommended an end to foreign donations and the full public disclosure of donations exceeding 5,000.

Despite the denials, however, it has now emerged that Blair personally intervened, and that within days of meeting Ecclestone (16 October 1997) he wrote to health minister Tessa Jowell looking for a means of finding a "permanent derogation" for F1.

There followed an exchange of correspondence between Blair and Jowell as they sought possible options which included a longer drawn out implementation of the tobacco advertising ban or a complete exemption for the sport.

On October 24, Blair's office wrote: "His view remains that we should seek to negotiate a permanent exemption for Formula One, backed up by a voluntary agreement with the FIA."

Jowell subsequently wrote to the European Union, which was at that time drafting the tobacco advertising legislation, seeking a total exemption for the sport.

The tobacco saga, which as we have pointed out, took place at the beginning of Blair's reign, became a portent of what was to follow, with the Labour Party mired in scandal after scandal. Lucky not to be impeached for taking Britain into what many believe to be an illegal war, Blair was, in the eyes of many, also lucky merely to be questioned by police in the so-called 'cash for honours' scandal.

Since stepping down as Prime Minister, Blair has maintained a high profile on the international stage, and though currently involved as a 'peace broker' in the Middle East, it is known that he is eyeing a more significant European role.

Brown, who as Chancellor sold Britain's gold reserves at bargain basement prices and also caused mayhem with regards the private pension market, has endured a tough time since taking over from Blair as Prime Minister. In recent weeks however, despite having admitted at the height of the Peter Hain donations saga, that he wasn't good with figures, is now seeking to lead the world through the ongoing financial crisis.

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