Leading article: The crisis that put a love affair on the skids

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Another modicum of innocence has been stripped away, as F Scott Fitzgerald once put it when describing the arguments that gradually destroy a love affair. Yes, Tony Blair apologised, but as lovers often apologise: for not telling the whole truth earlier, and for not anticipating how his actions would be interpreted.

The question is, if he had known what a fuss there would be, what would he have done differently? Would he have insisted that the ban on tobacco sponsorship should apply to Formula One along with every other sport? He says not, although there has been a bit of squirming on this, and a hint of another policy S-bend. It is possible that the Government might seek to give motor racing 10 years to go smoke-free, rather than an open- ended exemption.

Would he have refused to meet Bernie Ecclestone, who had given Labour pounds 1m, and, the Prime Minister told On The Record yesterday, who had "made a firm commitment to further donations"? No, he said. "It would have been bizarre if the bloke had been in a worse position as a result of donating to the Labour Party." No, it wouldn't. That is precisely what happens when you avoid giving the appearance of a conflict of interest. Douglas Hogg, for example, turned down a job as a Treasury minister because his wife was an economics journalist. Shutting the door of No 10 to Mr Ecclestone would have been no more bizarre than Labour being pounds 1m worse off for having changed its policy in a way that suits the Formula One magnate. As the wags have pointed out, Mr Ecclestone got a real bargain: the U-turn he wanted and his money back.

Would the Prime Minister have sought the advice of Ethics Man, Sir Patrick Neill, any earlier? No, because that had been done "immediately". Let us not quibble: the letter to Sir Patrick went four days after the decision to exempt Formula One was taken, during which time Tessa Jowell was being hung out to dry over her husband's motor-racing interests and press officers were allowed to deny knowledge of donations from Mr Ecclestone. The point is that Sir Patrick's predecessor, Lord Nolan, should have been consulted before the decision was taken. Mr Blair wrote to Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, the day after his meeting with Mr Ecclestone to ask for the special problems of Formula One to be considered. If he had handed back the money beforehand, the decision would have been seen to be impartial, although it would no doubt have been criticised on other grounds.

It is not simply the timing of the missive to Sir Patrick which was wrong, however, but its contents. Drafted by Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, and approved by Mr Blair himself, although signed by Tom Sawyer, Labour's general secretary, this is the "smoking letter" of the affair. It is a thoroughly evasive document. Mr Blair explained yesterday that he did not tell the Commons about the possibility of a new donation from Mr Ecclestone because by the time the letter was sent "I was focused on the original donation" of pounds 1m. On the contrary, the letter focuses on the "offer" of further money, in a doomed effort to steer Sir Patrick into letting the party keep the pounds 1m while confirming its decision to turn down further donations.

Mr Blair's understanding of the concept of a conflict of interest is, in its moral smallness, shockingly like the arrogance of Conservative ministers over the years. Of course it is better that the Labour party discloses the names of people and organisations that give more than pounds 5,000 up to 21 months after the event than not at all, which was the Conservative position. But none of what we know now was disclosed under these rules. It has been forced out of the participants in the same way that it might have been forced out of the previous government. And being forced to hand the money back after the decision does not testify to moral probity.

No one doubts that Mr Blair thought he was making a decision in the national interest. His public apology even had a kind of chorus yesterday, in the form of Tony Banks, the sports minister, who spoke of "naivety" and the unthinkability of prime ministerial corruption: "The man's so squeaky clean it's awesome."

But what would Mr Blair have done differently, if he had been given the chance? He did not say. In his interview, his plea was that of the transgressor through the ages. Trust me. I know it looks bad, but I am not like those other men. "I hope that people know me well enough and realise the type of person I am, to realise I would never do anything to harm the country or anything improper. I never have."

This is the kind of plea that loses its currency over time, as each successive layer of innocence is stripped away, and the love affair loses its magic.