Saturday, 11 October 2008

Secret papers reveal Tony Blair’s F1 tobacco deal

From The Sunday Times
October 12, 2008

Jonathan Oliver and Isabel Oakeshott

Tony Blair personally ordered an exemption for motor racing from a tobacco sponsorship ban after Labour received a secret £1m donation from Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One boss.

New documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show he demanded a change of policy after a meeting with Ecclestone on October 16, 1997, and his officials went on to obfuscate the truth.

The affair was the first sleaze scandal of the new Labour era, and Blair went on television to defend his reputation, saying he was a “pretty straight kind of guy”.

The new documents show clearly that the prime minister personally demanded a change of policy in the days that followed the meeting with Ecclestone. The following month the Department of Health announced a special exemption for F1 from a previously universal ban on tobacco sponsorship.

A Whitehall memo written on October 31, 1997, states: “The prime minister has made clear his wish to see a permanent exclusion for Formula One from the scope of the tobacco advertising ban.”

The documents also show how mandarins tried to protect Blair over the sequence of events, encouraging him to mislead MPs about what had happened.

At the height of the scandal, Tory MP John Maples put down a written parliamentary question asking when Blair informed Frank Dobson, the health secretary, of his plans to exempt F1 from the proposed ban.

A confidential briefing note to the Cabinet Office outlining possible responses to the question reveals that the true date was October 16. It reveals that Blair ordered Jonathan Powell to ring Tessa Jowell, then public health minister, to discuss the issue that evening.

However, the briefing note suggests Blair should name October 29 as the date, to be consistent with his previous public claims that the decision was not taken until two to three weeks after the crucial meeting with Ecclestone.

“The draft reply is strictly true in terms of the final decision . . . but critics could argue that the answer was disingenuous in that the prime minister’s views had been clearly conveyed by the telephone call on October 16,” the document says.

The documents also show Downing Street set out to mislead the public, via the media, about the PM’s personal role in the affair.

A briefing note for Alastair Campbell offers guidance “to dispel the notion that the F1 approach was dictated by the PM alone, after meeting Ecclestone”.

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