Blair's role in F1 tobacco ban revealed

Fresh details about the Ecclestone Affair - New Labour's first sleaze scandal - have been revealed in Whitehall documents.

Previously secret papers showed that Tony Blair personally intervened to secure Formula One's exemption from a tobacco advertising ban just hours after meeting the sport's boss, Bernie Ecclestone.

The Government has always maintained that the meeting did not influence the final decision over the exemption - even though Mr Ecclestone was a major party donor at the time.

The Prime Minister appeared on the BBC's On The Record programme to insist that he was a "pretty straight kind of guy" in a bid to draw a line under the controversy.

Claims that Mr Blair had "railroaded" the move past ministers were also strongly denied.

However, the briefing notes prepared by officials - and obtained by the Sunday Telegraph under freedom of information laws - raise questions about Mr Blair's account.

They reportedly show that Mr Blair instructed his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, to signal his support for a derogation just hours after meeting Mr Ecclestone on October 16, 1997.

The following day, Downing Street wrote to public health minister Tessa Jowell stating: "The Prime Minister would like your ministers to look for ways of finding a permanent derogation for sport, in particular F1."

On October 24, Ms Jowell wrote to Mr Blair setting out possible options which included the idea of an exemption, but also contained alternatives such as a longer phase-in period for the ban.

But five days later, she received a letter insisting: "His (the Prime Minister's) view remains that we should seek to negotiate a permanent exemption for Formula 1, backed up by a voluntary agreement with the FIA."

Following the PM's response, Ms Jowell wrote to the EU - where the tobacco advertising legislation was being drafted - seeking a total exemption for Formula One.

The documents also reveal concern among Whitehall officials that they were at risk of being "disingenuous" about the situation.

Tory MP John Maples had tabled a question in Parliament asking on what date Mr Blair had informed health secretary Frank Dobson of the decision to push for an exemption.

A reply was drafted which gave the date as October 29, but a briefing note warned: "The draft reply is strictly true in terms of the final decision which resulted in the letter to EU colleagues and is consistent with the Prime Minister's references on On The Record to the decision having been taken two or three weeks after the meeting (with) the FIA on 16 October.

"However, if the correspondence were in the public domain, critics could argue that the answer was disingenuous in that the Prime Minister's views had been clearly conveyed by the telephone call on 16 October and the letter on 17 October."

Before the question had been answered, Mr Blair told the Commons, on November 12, that the decision to exempt Formula One had been made on November 5.

When the answer to Mr Maples' question was finally given, it referred him to Mr Blair's statement.

A spokesman for Mr Blair said last night: "There is nothing new here. All these issues were debated at the time."