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Monday, November 17, 1997 Published at 11:40 GMT


Blair 'diverting attention from cash-for-favours'

Tony Blair: apologised for Government handling of the Formula One affair

The Conservative Party has accused the Prime Minister of using "diversionary tactics" in his handling of the Formula One affair by demanding an overhaul of the party funding system.

John Maples, the Opposition spokesman for health, said Tony Blair had left many questions unanswered and had deliberately misled the public over motor racing chief Bernie Ecclestone's second possible donation to the Labour party.

His attack came after an article in The Times newspaper on Monday, in which Mr Blair called for "the toughest possible set of rules" on funding. These would include national limits on election costs, "modest" ceilings on individual and company donations, and the publication of names and amounts.

Mr Maples said that any discussion of party funding and donations to the Conservative Party should be delayed until all details of the "cash for favours" affair were disclosed.

"This is another diversionary tactic by the Government to distract attention from the Formula One affair. The Prime Minister left a lot of questions unanswered and in one respect he seems to have quite deliberately misled all of us," said Mr Maples.

"I think until all these questions are answered we should not allow them get away and divert the argument yet again on some other subject," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Blair faces the music

Controversy over party funding has resulted in widespread criticism of the Labour Government, both from within and outside the party.

[ image: Tony Blair was elected PM after a costly campaign]
Tony Blair was elected PM after a costly campaign
But Mr Blair acted quickly, referring the matter to Sir Patrick's cross-party committee on Wednesday.

On Sunday he appeared on BBC TV to apologise for the Government's handling of the issue. He has also asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to review all aspects of party political funding.

The committee's chairman, Sir Patrick Neill, will now consider a number of changes to the present system, including limiting the size of individual contributions, introducing compulsory disclosure and possible limits on campaign spending.

The root of the problem

The months leading up to the 1997 General Election saw record amounts of party political spending, much of it taken up by newspaper and advertising hoardings.

Exactly how much money the three main political parties spent is unclear, but rough figures suggest the Conservatives spent 20m, Labour 14m and the Liberal Democrats 3m.

[ image: John Edmonds says rules must change]
John Edmonds says rules must change
Much of the money was used to pay for political advertising. But critics of the system now suggest that if this was reduced, party spending could be transformed.

"If you had no press advertising and no poster advertising you could run a full-scale national campaign on 5m," said Oxford University political analyst David Butler, "That can be raised without scandal reasonably easily."

The General Secretary of the GMB union, John Edwards, agreed with Mr Blair's decision to refer the matter to Sir Patrick. He said: "All electioneering has to be funded by people who support those parties, but the overall amount should be cut down."

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