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Monday, November 17, 1997 Published at 00:09 GMT


Blair apologises for mishandling F1 row

"I didn't get it all wrong - but it hasn't been handled well and I apologize for that"

After his worst week in politics since becoming Prime Minister just over six months ago, Tony Blair has attempted to end the dispute over the 1m donation to his party by Formula One boss, Bernie Ecclestone.

To draw a line under accusations that he exempted Formula One from the tobacco sponsorship ban because of Mr Ecclestone's donation, and promises of future donations, he appeared on the BBC TV's On the Record.

He apologised for mishandling the dispute by letting information "dribble out", but he said the Government had "not done anything wrong".

[ image: Mr Blair says he will publish the notes from the meeting immediately]
Mr Blair says he will publish the notes from the meeting immediately
He promised to immediately publish the notes from his crucial meeting with Mr Ecclestone on October 16, but he said there was no need for a public inquiry into the affair.

Mr Blair related the sequence of events and said that Government policy had never been changed under pressure from Mr Ecclestone. He said he was "furious at the suggestions".

"I had absolutely no intention of changing the policy for Bernie Ecclestone - and at that point (October 16) I hadn't decided the route we were to go down."

Mr Blair said the decision to exempt Formula One from tobacco sponsorship was taken two weeks later. It was in response to fears that Britain might lose the industry overseas to Asian countries who were bidding for it.

He said that after the decision to exempt Formula One, the party had immediately referred Bernie Ecclestone's pre-election donation of 1m to Sir Patrick Neill, head of the standards committee, and pledged to return the money.

"Some of the stuff that has been written in the papers has been blown out of all proportion," Mr Blair said.

[ image:
" I am a pretty straight sort of guy"
He denied misleading the Commons over the issue of future donations. He said that by the time he spoke in Parliament last Wednesday he no longer considered it an issue.

At this point he said he had already "rescinded" Mr Ecclestone's offer of further donations.

"My whole focus was on the original donation - because by that time we had made the decision on Formula One," he said.

Mr Blair said he was "furious" at insinuations that "something dodgy" had gone on during the 20-minute meeting with Mr Ecclestone, and he was publishing the unofficial notes - taken by a Parliamentary secretary - to end speculation.

The Prime Minister also said he was willing to reveal all the donors to the Labour Party since 1992, and how much they had given, if the other parties were willing to do the same.

He asserted that the Formula One row had arisen only because Labour had been honest enough to publish the names of its donors in the first place.

"I am perfectly happy to supply Sir Patrick Neill with a list of donors and amounts ... as long as it is the same for both parties. I am perfectly happy to pass that information over to Sir Patrick now, as long as the other parties do too..." he said.

"The Labour Party is in this position because we disclose the names of donors, no other party does," he said.

He also said that in the future he would be happy to "legislate for a limit on donations" and the amount parties could spend in general elections.

Mr Blair denied that he had lost the trust of the British people over the row concerning Bernie Ecclestone's donation to the party.

"I don't believe I have been tarnished - no ... I am a pretty straight sort of guy," he said.


The Government has come under increasing pressure in the past week from both within and outside the Labour Party. Two members of Labour's ruling National Executive Committee - Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott - have called for an independent inquiry.

They are backed by another left-wing MP, Jeremy Corbyn. He says party members are "angry".

"They want to know where the money came from, they want to know if any undertakings have ever been given to anybody else," he said.

"We have traditionally had our money from trade unions and ordinary party members and if business money is coming in I believe business wants a price for it."

On Wednesday Mr Blair referred the whole issue of party funding to the cross-party standards committee led by Sir Patrick Neill.

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