Blair, “a pretty straight sort of a guy”?

Bernie Ecclestone

Bernie Ecclestone

In assembling a list of Tony Blair’s top ten lies to the British people, Iraq and Saddam’s fabled weapons of mass destruction would surely top the charts. This was the lie that finally knocked Blair’s halo askew in the eyes of the public. Until that point many took him at his word when he claimed he was “a pretty straight sort of a guy”.

A liar would say that, wouldn’t he? A dishonest man is hardly going to admit his dishonesty, it’s simply not in his nature.

When thinking back to Bernie Ecclestone’s purchase of Tony Blair, New Labour’s first major scandal though certainly not the last, the sum of £1,000,000 probably jumps into your head. That was the amount Ecclestone donated to Blair’s party in secret in January, 1997 before Blair became the PM.

To dwell on the million pounds would be to miss the key issue in the “cash for access” affair. In those early days of New Labour’s reign Blair was already developing the methods of deception and corruption that he would return to repeatedly during his time in office.

Smoking is the greatest single cause of preventable illness and premature death in the UK. We will therefore ban tobacco advertising. – 1997 Labour Party Manifesto

In the election manifesto Blair had pledged to put an end to all tobacco advertising. No exceptions were indicated. Health Secretary Frank Dobson and Minister for Public Health Tessa Jowell were responsible for driving the new policy through. Jowell, in particular, had a reputation for being staunchly anti-tobacco.

On October 16th, 1997 Ecclestone and FAI boss Max Mosley meet Tony Blair to argue against the proposed ban. Literally hours after the meeting Downing Street wrote to Jowell instructing her “to look for ways of finding a permanent derogation for sport, in particular F1.” Despite the about face, and in a demonstration of the principles and integrity of the woman, on 4 November she argued in Brussels for an exemption for Formula One.

Ecclestone and Mosely had warned Blair, “Motor racing was a world class industry which put Britain at the hi-tech edge. Deprived of tobacco money, Formula One would move abroad at the loss of 50,000 jobs, 150,000 part-time jobs and £900 million of exports.”

Considering the meeting lasted all of 20 minutes it’s doubtful whether these claims were examined in any detail. And taking into account what we now know, that it only took a few hours for Blair to issue his instructions to Jowell, it’s safe to assume little or no attempt was made to verify the claims.

By this stage journalists were trying to establish whether New Labour had received any donations from Formula One. On November 9th Downing Street admitted Mosely was a party supporter but remained silent on whether Ecclestone had made any donations. The next day Gordon Brown claimed he had no knowledge of any contributions from Ecclestone. With pressure growing, on the 11th November New Labour eventually admitted to the £1,000,000 donation.

Stretching credibility to breaking point, Blair tried to sell his policy reversal as an attempt to protect British jobs. Think about that for a minute. If he was telling the truth, he was effectively admitting the manifesto was prepared without due care and attention. If he was telling the truth the proposed tobacco advertising ban was nothing more than a thoughtless and cynical pre-election sound-bite.

In late November the government was condemned by two cross-party parliamentary committees for reversing its policy on the ban. Jowell admitted the number of jobs lost if Formula One left Europe might not be as high as previously estimated. By estimation I assume she meant the instruction taken from Ecclestone and Mosely.

Unknown at the time a November memo from the DTI to the health department stated, “We believe it is unlikely that if F1 should leave the UK there would be an immediate effect on the industry as a whole.” A little late considering Blair had taken no time to make his decision and even going by his own spin the decision to exempt Formula One was made in October.

Eventually Blair had to hand the million back to Ecclestone. After issuing the cheque Downing Street announced if it was not cashed the total amount would be donated to charity. Ecclestone, down to his last billion, cashed the cheque. There would be no honourable conclusion to the sordid episode and Ecclestone triumphed by having his cake and eating it.

We had to wait until 2008 before documents released under the Freedom of Information Act finally confirmed Blair had lied, lied and lied again about his role in the Ecclestone affair. The year after Blair resigned, internal Downing Street memos revealed the decision to overturn the Formula One ban had been made at the time of the meeting, and not two weeks later as Blair stated in Parliament.

The transcript of Tony Blair’s meeting with Bernie Ecclestone

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