Tory minister who took on the tobacco giants and lost

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The Independent Online
It was somehow fitting that on her retirement, Lady Thatcher should become a consultant for Philip Morris at around pounds 550,000 a year. She was, after all, carrying on the tradition of Conservative Party's long and lucrative links with the tobacco industry.

The tobacco lobby and the sporting bodies it sponsors have always had influential friends at Central Office, and Tory politicians, even ministers, who cross them did not survive for long. The Independent can tell the story of how one minister, Richard Tracey, was forced out when he tried to take on these vested interests.

In l985, Mr Tracey, the member for Surbiton and, at 41, a rising young star of the party, was made minister of sport by Margaret Thatcher. He was soon being told by various bodies and individuals, including television producers, that the tobacco companies were bending the rules in the televised sports they sponsored especially snooker and motor racing.

In snooker, BBC producers complained, the tobacco company sponsoring events had even started painting the sets in the colour of a cigarette brand. Mr Tracey instructed his civil servants to try and negotiate voluntary restrictions with the tobacco industry. Warnings soon followed; he was told the industry had "powerful supporters at court". He was also presented with the scenario of the sports abandoning Britain with consequent job losses, just as the Labour government is now facing over Formula One.

However, Mr Tracey pursued the reforms, He was told again, by some senior Tories, that he was doing his career no good.

The beginning of the end came, said a senior Tory source, when the party was made an offer during the l987 election campaign that they could not refuse. Just a week before polling day, the fortunes of Neil Kinnock and Labour suddenly seemed to rise. There was panic at Central Office at what became known as "Wobbly Thursday".

A last-minute advertising blitz was planned by the campaign organisers. However, the cost looked and prohibitive. Tory sources have revealed that a senior figure representing the tobacco industry then stepped in and offered assistance amounting to around pounds 2m, in return asking for the head of Mr Tracey. It is claimed the tobacco lobby offered to make available not just cash, but billboards sites, which would not have been easy to book at that late stage, and newspaper advertising space.

After the election triumph, Mr Tracey was expected to be promoted. He was acknowledged to have carried out his main task well - combating football hooliganism after the Heysel disaster. Instead, he was demoted to the back benches.

Mr Tracey said yesterday: "When Margaret told me she wanted me to relinquish my position, I was shocked and disappointed. Of course I have often wondered whether my opposition to the tobacco lobby played a part.

"Others who have stood up to the tobacco lobby have suffered."