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Tuesday, 19 September, 2000, 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK
Ecclestone row: A problem of perception

Ecclestone affair hit Labour at its peak
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Damaging claims that Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown lied publicly during the Bernie Ecclestone affair have been swiftly dismissed by Downing Street.

A spokesman has described them as "misleading" and "a second-rate mix of re-heated allegations."

That may well all be true, but the damaging thing about the claims, in a book by political journalist Andrew Rawnsley, is their timing.

They come just as Labour is at its lowest ebb in the polls and amid signs that Tony Blair has lost the trust of the voters.

So, while these allegations may have been easily brushed aside six months ago, voters may now be in a frame of mind to accept them.

They may be more ready to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the two men did indeed deliberately mislead them over the Ecclestone affair.

Straight guy

It was certainly the government's first real setback and came just six months after its election landslide.

Bernie Ecclestone
Bernie Ecclestone: 1m was repaid, but the row goes on
Tony Blair went onto TV to appeal directly to the public to trust him as a pretty straight sort of guy.

His appeal worked, mostly because of his once-famous ability to engage directly with voters, but he must have known at the time that such tactics rarely work more than once.

And there were lingering suspicions about the way ministers had handled the whole affair.

Mr Blair found himself in further hot water when he stated during Question Time that the 1m donation from Mr Ecclestone had been repaid.

At that time it still had not been repaid, but the blunder was put down to a genuine slip under pressure rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead.

It was also the first time that political journalists believed Labour's spin doctors had deliberately lied to them.

Tendency to panic

So there was always a chance that the affair would come back to haunt the government.

There is a further claim in the book which may prove even more damaging to Mr Blair - the allegation that he thought the issue would finish him off.

He is alleged to have declared to a friend at the time: "This is the end - they will get me for this."

If that is true then it suggests that the prime minister has a tendency to panic.

And that will throw a question mark over his handling of more recent crises, particularly the fuel protests. And, once again, it is mostly about perception.

Every claim in the book may be erroneous, but the danger for the prime minister is that they will contribute to a wider view of him that could stick right up to the next election.

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