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Sunday, November 16, 1997 Published at 15:55 GMT



Despatches: Europe

Tony Blair apologises for advertising ban mishandling

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has apologised for his handling of the issue which has dominated British politics for the last week. The governing Labour party has been under scrutiny for its acceptance of a 1 million donation from the boss of Formula One motor-racing, Bernie Ecclestone, and the Government's subsequent decision to exempt Formula One from a ban on tobacco sponsorhip of sport. On the advice of an independent supervisor of public standards, Labour has now returned the money. Speaking in a BBC interview, Mr Blair said that the presentation of the affair had been wrong, but that he would never trade influence for money. Here's our political correspondent Tim Franks:

The Prime Minister's appearance on Sunday television was a measure of how badly this issue has spun out of Labour's control. Labour won the May general election, partly because of the perception that the then Conservative government had engaged in murky financial dealings. Now that perception was tainting Labour's image. Tony Blair said two things had gone wrong: he hadn't realised how big the affair would become, and information should not have come out in little disjointed bits.

He said: "It hasn't been handled well - and for that I take full responsibility, and apologise for that. I suppose what I would say to you is that perhaps I didn't focus on this and the seriousness of it the way that I should, because I was focussing on other issues."

But Mr Blair insisted that he would never act improperly or change a policy because of someone's support for his party. He promised to publish the notes of the meeting he had with Mr Ecclestone shortly before the Government's change of policy, which allowed Formula One to escape the ban on tobacco advertising. The Prime Minister said he looked forward to the recommendations of an independent inquiry into the funding of political parties. He suggested that a law might be passed limiting individual donations to 5,000 -- around $8,000 -- and restricting expenditure during election campaigns. The government's fervent hope is that Mr Blair's BBC interview will end a long stretch of bad publicity.








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