Blair: `I think I'm a pretty straight sort of guy'

Tony Blair placed his personal reputation on the line yesterday.

In an appeal for the public to trust him over the Formula One donations scandal, he put on a polished performance. But, Fran Abrams writes, the matter is unlikely to rest there.

In line with the new tradition of political apologies, the Prime Minister went on television yesterday to say "sorry" to the British public. The issue of Bernie Ecclestone's pounds 1m donation to Labour and his sport's subsequent exemption from a tobacco sponsorship ban had been badly handled, he admitted.

Speaking on BBC1's On the Record programme, Mr Blair put up a strong defence against any suggestions of impropriety, saying he had been "hurt and upset" by much that had been written about him.

"I think most people who have dealt with me think I am a pretty straight sort of guy, and I am," he said.

"I am sorry about this issue. I should have realised it was going to blow up into this type of importance, but I have honestly done what I thought was best for the country ... I would never, ever, do something wrong or improper or change a policy because someone supported or donated money to the party. I didn't in this case."

Mr Blair described suggestions in yesterday's newspapers that donations by Lord Sainsbury had affected planning decisions on supermarkets as "completely ridiculous". The decisions had been made by planning inspectors. "David Sainsbury is getting absolutely pilloried because he is a supporter of the Labour Party," he said.

The Prime Minister's strong performance included a hint that he might be prepared to limit all political donations to pounds 5,000 if Sir Patrick Neill, the public standards watchdog who is to investigate the issues, recommended it.

He also promised to publish all donations over pounds 5,000 going back to 1992 if the other parties would do the same. Labour has published all such donations since 1995, and the Liberal Democrats have resolved to do so from January 1998, but the Tories have always kept their funding secret.

Mr Blair confirmed he was aware of Mr Ecclestone's pre-election donation when the men and their aides met on 16 October. He said he also believed the Formula One boss had made a firm commitment to a further payment - something Mr Ecclestone has denied. But he saw no reason not to see Mr Ecclestone. It would have been "bizarre" not to treat a party donor with the same respect accorded to others. The Italian Prime Minister and Chancellor Kohl of Germany had also seen the sport's representatives to argue against a European ban on tobacco sponsorship.

However, the Prime Minister did not fully quell suspicion surrounding his motives in seeking Sir Patrick's advice. Although he said he ordered the move in the morning of 6 November, before the media began to inquire about the donations, the letter was not posted until the following evening. His assertion that the letter was meant mainly to ask whether Labour should pay back the pre-election pounds 1m, rather than to seek guidance on the further donation, is only partially borne out by the text.

Last night, Downing Street published a secretary's notes of the 16 October meeting, but they served only to confirm that Mr Ecclestone and the head of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, Max Mosley, had threatened to take their sport abroad if the ban was imposed.

However, in a further development Richard Branson, who is advising the government on alternatives to tobacco sponsorship, has written to The Independent saying that if Formula One withdrew he would bring American- style Indy car racing to Britain to replace it.

The Conservative trade and industry spokesman, John Redwood, said in a separate interview that the Government should make a full statement on the issue.

"This is a story riddled with holes and this is today's version of the story. It's not an issue about party political funding. There is nothing wrong with individuals or companies giving money to parties if they like their policies or they like their principles. What would be wrong is if a party came to government and then was prepared to change its policies or its principles in order to say thank-you for donations or to receive new ones," he said.

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