'Observer' writer wanted his scoop to be in the 'Mail'

The Serialisation
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Indy Politics

The explosive allegation that Tony Blair lied about details of Labour's £1m donation from Bernie Ecclestone, the boss of Formula One, comes from a new book by The Observer's chief political correspondent, Andrew Rawnsley.

The explosive allegation that Tony Blair lied about details of Labour's £1m donation from Bernie Ecclestone, the boss of Formula One, comes from a new book by The Observer's chief political correspondent, Andrew Rawnsley.

That this story from the book was serialised in the Daily Mail rather than his own paper might cause a less exuberant character than Rawnsley to tread carefully in The Observer's offices.

It was Rawnsley and his agent who decided that the Ecclestone story should go to the Mail, but would give The Observer first bite at the book with other revelations, including the unhappy relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and more detail of the Mandelson-Robinson scandal.

However, Roger Alton, The Observer's editor, said yesterday that he was completely happy with the situation. "We got a very good deal and the Mail got a good deal," he said. "It was not the cheapest book serialisation."

Rawnsley is likely to make well in excess of £50,000 from the serialisations, although his agent would give no details of the agreed fees.

Rawnsley's agent, Gill Coleridge, who also looks after the television scriptwriter Lynda la Plante and the broadcasters Ludovic Kennedy and Robert Key, said that she and Rawnsley had selected two extracts to go to The Observer, which had won first serial rights, and two to go to the Daily Mail after The Observer serialisation. Rawnsley decided that the chapters about Tony Blair's fall-out with Gordon Brown, and the Mandelson-Robinson scandal, were right for The Observer, while the Ecclestone episode and "How Blair hijacked Princess Diana's death" were Daily Mail territory.

In the chapter on the Ecclestone affair, which dominated the political agenda yesterday, the book, Servants Of The People, says Peter Mandelson, Mr Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, all told Mr Blair not to confess to having taken the money.

Mr Blair and Mr Brown are said to have lied about the matter as they came under pressure for exempting Formula One from a ban on tobacco sponsorship, the book claims.

The book's other damaging revelations include details of a bitter feud between Mr Blair and Mr Brown, and a claim that Mr Blair tried to stitch up a deal for one of his friends to take over the New Statesman.

Details in the Daily Mail said the Chancellor had already discussed the impending crisis with Tony Blair before telling a BBC interviewer he did not know whether Mr Ecclestone had given money to Labour.

"I've not been told and I certainly don't know what the truth is," he said. The book claims he returned to his office in a "red mist" and "went mental".

It alleges that Mr Blair later falsely claimed in a television interview that he had consulted Lord Neill of Bladen, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, on the matter before journalists had asked questions about it.

He also said he had asked Lord Neill, who was then Sir Patrick Neill, whether he should return the donation when in fact he allegedly had asked only if it would be proper to accept a second gift.

The book says Mr Blair ordered Frank Dobson, who was then the secretary of state for health, to exempt Formula One from the ban after meeting Mr Ecclestone in Downing Street in October 1997.

As questions began to be asked after the public health minister, Tessa Jowell, made the announcement at an EU meeting on 4 November, "the atmosphere in Downing Street was frantic", the book says.

Mr Blair's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, advised him to come clean, it adds, but Mr Mandelson and Mr Powell disagreed. "They saw no sense in helping the media to damage the Government." Lord Irvine told the Prime Minister a confession would be "utterly absurd".

It was only then that a letter was written asking Sir Patrick for his view. "Crafted to conceal" it was signed not by Mr Blair but by the Labour Party's general secretary, Tom Sawyer.

As the crisis unravelled, Mr Blair told colleagues it could cost him the premiership. "This is the end. They'll get me for this," he is supposed to have said.

Ms Coleridge said: "Because of Andrew's position on The Observer it was right and just that they should have the first shot. Both sections of the book that The Observer ran were massively followed up."

Mr Alton said: "Andrew was genuinely surprised at how the Mail played the Ecclestone story."

Details of the explosive relationship between Mr Brown and Mr Blair were serialised by The Observer two weeks ago. It says Mr Blair describes his Chancellor as "impossible" and said: "Gordon's problem is that he hasn't got a family."

Mr Brown threatened to resign after a pro-euro speech by Mr Mandelson earlier this year and told colleagues: "Tony wants us to tax less, spend more and borrow less. Our job is to make it add up for him."