Smoking Row: Health department protests at Formula One pressure

Senior Whitehall sources have protested to The Independent that Formula One lobbied through the Prime Minister's office to block a ban on tobacco sponsorship of the sport. Anthony Bevins reports on another twist in the affair.
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The Independent Online
The official version of events leading up to the Government's decision to rescue Formula One suggests that it was taken in a normal series of exchanges between Ministers. But high-level sources within the Department of Health have protested that, throughout, Formula One cast its influence over the entire process - exerting its influence through No 10 and the Prime Minister's office.

While Tony Blair himself would not have got involved in the detailed negotiations, members of his staff - who might well have been aware of the pounds 1m donation made to the Labour Party by Formula One's Bernie Ecclestone - were putting pressure on the Department of Health to break the manifesto pledge for a ban on tobacco advertising.

That was bitterly resented from within the Department, by officials who had suffered years of tobacco lobby pressure from Margaret Thatcher.

The official chronology of Labour negotiations begins with a memorandum sent by Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, to the Prime Minister on 29 May, just four weeks after Labour had taken office.

That memorandum sought Mr Blair's agreement to the negotiating position the Government was going to strike over a draft European directive on tobacco advertising.

The directive had been opposed by the Conservative Government, but at a meeting with EU colleagues on 5 June, Tessa Jowell, Minister for Public Health, offered British support, qualified by any impact the directive might have on sports sponsorship.

By June, however, senior sources in the Department of Health had become acutely conscious that the Prime Minister's office might have been "nobbled".

None of the senior people in the Department of Health knew at that stage that Mr Ecclestone had made his donation to the Labour Party, in January, or that he was offering further cash to the party in talks over the summer.

By the time that Mr Dobson sent Mr Blair another memorandum on 17 July, setting out the negotiating options for the European directive, including the possibility of an exemption for Formula One, as well as a complete ban on tobacco sponsorship for all sport, it was felt that the die had been cast - and the U-turn had already become embedded in the policy line being pressed by No 10.

According to the Prime Minister's office the first meeting between Ministers and Max Mosley, head of the FIA, the sport's governing body, took place on 23 September, and there was a follow-up meeting between Mr Ecclestone and Mr Blair on 16 October.

The Prime Minister's office said yesterday that while Mr Blair would have been aware that Labour fund-raisers had been engaged in discussions with Mr Ecclestone, talking about the possibility of a further donation, there would have been no mention of it in those talks. Given the high- level lobbying exercise that had been applied to No 10 since the election, no one needed to have mentioned anything so crude as money or donations - that would have been taken as read.

Letters, page 18