Labour quizzed over Ecclestone cash

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The Tories today stepped up the pressure over fresh allegations that Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown lied over a £1 million gift from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone.

The Tories today stepped up the pressure over fresh allegations that Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown lied over a £1 million gift from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone.

Downing Street last night dismissed the claims - made in a new book about the Labour Government - over the row which rocked Mr Blair's fledgling administration in 1997.

However Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo described the allegations as "very serious" and called on Mr Blair and Mr Brown to issue detailed statements explaining what had really happened.

He challenged the two men to sue if the claims made against them were false.

"They will want to clear this matter up at once by putting out a statement making it clear that they didn't lie as alleged," Mr Portillo said.

"They will surely wish to explain how they will seek legal redress."

The latest allegations appear in an extract from Servants of the People by the Observer's chief political commentator Andrew Rawnsley which was serialised in today's edition of the Daily Mail.

They relate to the political storm which broke over the new Labour Government in November 1997 after it was disclosed that it was planning to exempt Formula One from a potentially damaging ban on tobacco advertising in sport.

As journalists began to ask questions about Labour's relations with Mr Ecclestone, Mr Brown was asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme whether the tycoon had given money to the party.

Mr Brown replied: "You'll have to wait and see like I'll have to wait and see when the list (of Labour donors paying more than £5,000) is published."

He added: "I've not been told and I certainly don't know what the truth is."

However, according to Mr Rawnsley's book, Mr Brown was well aware of the donation as Mr Blair had turned to him for advice when the story first broke the previous week.

"The Chancellor did know the truth and he had not told it. He returned to the Treasury in a red mist which staggered even those who had long endured his titanic tempers," the book said.

"'Gordon went mental', says one witness. Brown raged at his staff: 'I lied. I lied. My credibility will be in shreds. I lied. If this gets out, I'll be destroyed'."

The book then claims that Mr Blair "slid into mendacity" over a letter to Lord Neill's Committee on Standards in Public Life, sent in the name of Labour Party General Secretary Tom Sawyer, asking advice on a second donation Mr Ecclestone was planning to make.

In a BBC TV interview with John Humphrys, the Prime Minister said that "before any journalist had been in touch", the party had told Mr Ecclestone's people that they could not accept another donation.

He went on: "The question then arose which was uppermost in my mind, what about the original donation? We decided to seek the advice of Sir Patrick Neill".

However, the book says he was not telling the truth on either count. The letter to the Neill Committee was only written after journalists began taking an interest in the story and it asked for advice about a second donation, not the first.

Downing Street dismissed the allegations and ridiculed the report in the Daily Mail.

A spokesman said the paper's headline about Mr Blair lying was "misleading" and was "singularly unsubstantiated by the rest of the article."

He added: "This is a second rate mix of re-heated allegations that were made at the time plus some colourful quotes that add up to nothing."

Mr Brown's former press secretary Charlie Whelan also leapt to the defence of his former boss, dismissing Mr Rawnsley's book as "a joke".

"I can't use the word on the radio at this time in the morning but it begins with 'b' and ends with 's'," he told the Today programme.

He said that after his Today programme interview referred to in the book, Mr Brown had not returned to the Treasury but had gone straight to catch a train for the CBI conference in Birmingham.

"He (Mr Rawnsley) has made lots of ridiculous allegations in his book," Mr Whelan said.

"When you know you have been somewhere and something has happened and then you read something that didn't happen, then you think can you really take these books seriously and the answer is 'no'."

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