Page last updated at 10:36 GMT, Sunday, 12 October 2008 11:36 UK

'Blair intervened' on tobacco ban

Bernie Ecclestone
Bernie Ecclestone is Formula One's billionaire boss

Fresh details about the Ecclestone affair - New Labour's first sleaze scandal - have been uncovered.

The Sunday Telegraph says previously secret papers show then PM Tony Blair personally intervened in the matter.

Previously Mr Blair maintained that the idea to grant Formula One an exemption from a ban on tobacco advertising had come from the Department of Health.

The issue of tobacco advertising had been discussed when Mr Blair met Mr Ecclestone - a Labour donor.

The party was famously forced to hand back a 1m donation from the Formula One mogul in 1997.

The cash had been linked to a decision to exempt the sport from a tobacco advertising ban.

The documents reportedly show then Prime Minister Tony Blair intervened to secure an exemption just hours after meeting the racing tycoon on 16 October 1997.

But at the time, the prime minister denied personal involvement, and appeared on a BBC programme to insist he was a "pretty straight kind of guy".

Briefing notes

The government has always maintained the meeting on 16 October did not influence the final decision over the exemption. They insisted it was a joint decision made with the Department of Health at a later date.

However, the Sunday Telegraph says newly released documents - obtained under Freedom of Information laws - "prove conclusively Mr Blair ordered his government to prepare for the policy change immediately following his meeting with Mr Ecclestone".

They reportedly show the prime minister instructed his then Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, to signal his support for a derogation within hours of the meeting.

The following day, Downing Street wrote to then Public Health Minister Tessa Jowell stating: "The prime minister would like your ministers to look for ways of finding a permanent derogation for sport, in particular F1."

On 24 October, Ms Jowell wrote to Mr Blair setting out possible options which included the idea of an exemption, but also contained alternatives such as a longer phase-in period for the ban.

But five days later, she received a letter insisting: "His (the prime minister's) view remains that we should seek to negotiate a permanent exemption for Formula 1..."

Following the PM's response, Ms Jowell wrote to the EU - where the tobacco advertising legislation was being drafted - seeking a total exemption for Formula One.

'Nothing new'

The documents are also said to reveal concern among Whitehall officials that they were at risk of being "disingenuous" about the situation.

The revelations are contained in briefing notes, drafted by officials working for Ms Jowell.

The notes relate to a parliamentary question tabled by Conservative MP John Maples. Mr Maples wanted to know on what date Mr Blair had informed then Health Secretary Frank Dobson of the decision to push for an exemption.

A reply was drafted which gave the date as 29 October, but a briefing note warned: "The draft reply is strictly true in terms of the final decision which resulted in the letter to EU colleagues and is consistent with the Prime Minister's references on On The Record to the decision having been taken two or three weeks after the meeting (with) the FIA [Formula One's governing body] on Oct 16.

"However, if the correspondence were in the public domain, critics could argue that the answer was disingenuous in that the Prime Minister's views had been clearly conveyed by the telephone call on Oct 16 and the letter on Oct 17."

Before the question had been answered, Mr Blair told the Commons, on 12 November, that the decision to exempt Formula One had been made on 5 November.

When the answer to Mr Maples' question was finally given, it referred him to Mr Blair's statement.

A spokesman for Mr Blair said: "There is nothing new here. All these issues were debated at the time."

Fore the Conservatives, shadow work and pensions secretary Chris Grayling said: "These revelations blow the lid off what looks to have been a culture of deceit in Downing Street under Tony Blair.

"Mr Blair assured us at the time that there was no deception and if, as is now thought, this claim was untrue, Mr Blair has some serious questions to answer."

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