Ties that bind Labour to Formula One

As sleaze allegations grow against the Government over tobacco sponsorship of the sport, Kim Sengupta examines the ties that bind Labour to the motor racing establishment.

It came full circle last night. After days of declining to comment on whether Bernie Ecclestone had given money into the party coffers, Labour suddenly announced it was handing back a "more than pounds 5,000" to the Formula One chief. It was taking "swift action", said a party spokesman following advice from the new chairman of the Standards Committee, Sir Patrick Neill.

The timing of the announcement had a bit more to it than merely "swift action". The publicising of the return of the money came when Labour knew the media would be concentrating overwhelmingly on the Louise Woodward case. As one of the party's spin doctors said, it was "a nice night for a slight tactical withdrawal".

Labour's general secretary, Tom Sawyer, had written to Sir Patrick last week seeking his advice. He responded yesterday that although criticism of the donation itself would be wrong, it should be returned in order to avoid the appearance of undue influence on policy.

The donation had been made this year, before the general election, and would have appeared in next year's party accounts as it was more than pounds 5,000. Mr Ecclestone said he had never sought any favours in return for his money.

There are ties that bind Formula One racing to Labour, and they have become sources of contention following the perceived U-turn by the Government on tobacco sponsorship.

In the run-up to the election and after victory, Labour had stated it was adamantly against tobacco advertising in sport. But all that changed after a meeting on 16 October at Downing Street between the Prime Minister and senior members of the racing lobby. Mr Blair was accompanied by officials; no other ministers were present.

What was not known at the time was that the three members of the racing delegation all had links with the Labour Party. The meeting had been organised by David Ward, the director-general of the Federation Internationale D'Automobile, and chief researcher in the past to former Labour leader John Smith. Accompanying him was Max Mosley, the president of FIA and the driving force in the battle to keep tobacco sponsorship for Formula One. He was also a prominent Labour supporter, and had given around pounds 5,000 to Labour funds. And then there was Mr Eccleston, a former major contributor to the Conservatives, some estimate to the tune of pounds 10m over the years, who had switched to funding Labour just before the election.

That meeting, according to sources, was crucial in making Mr Blair change his mind about tobacco sponsorship. However, it was Tessa Jowell who wrote to the EU on behalf of the Government urging Formula One to be made an exemption.

Ms Jowell's husband David Mills, a lawyer, was until recently a director of the Formula One company Benetton Formula. He still does legal work for the company, and, it was revealed yesterday, is intending to go into business with Flavio Briatore, the former head of Benetton Formula.

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