How Labour’s PR merely fanned the flames of this tobacco row

Tony Blair’s fall from grace over tobacco sponsorship of Formula 1 motor racing is so astonishing that even I, who knows after the Westland affair how problems can spiral out of Governments’ control, am left wondering how he could ever have got into this damaging mess. It becomes all the more incredible when you look at the situation through PR eyes.

Tony Blair’s fall from grace over tobacco sponsorship of Formula 1

motor racing is so astonishing that even I, who knows after the Westland

affair how problems can spiral out of Governments’ control, am left

wondering how he could ever have got into this damaging mess. It becomes

all the more incredible when you look at the situation through PR

eyes.



Mr Blair came to office on the back of Tory ’sleaze’, even though he had

done next to nothing to clean out the Augean stable of Labour local

government. His manifesto contained a specific commitment to restore

faith in British politics - indeed, to clean it up. He promised to ban

tobacco advertising. And he pledged himself to introduce a Freedom of

Information Act to end unnecessary secrecy in Government.



Against that background - and his preoccupation with presentation - any

self-respecting PR adviser would have told him that, since he was ’New’

Labour’s prime - and perhaps only - asset, he must remain untainted at

almost any cost. So what did he do? Having accepted pounds 1 million

from Formula 1’s chief Bernie Ecclestone, he then met the millionaire

about Formula 1’s tobacco sponsorship. The sponsorship ban was then

lifted from Formula 1, but not from snooker and cricket, which are not

as well connected with No 10.



When the scandal inevitably broke, what happened? Why its much-vaunted

spin doctors were struck dumb for five days. Ministers appeared on TV

unbriefed and then pulled out of interviews or engagements. When, on

advice rather than voluntarily, his returning Mr Ecclestone’s largesse

didn’t kill the issue - as it can’t while Formula 1’s tobacco

sponsorship remains - Mr Blair desperately apologised on TV, not for

systematically breaking his election promises but for handling the issue

badly.



The only justification for Mr Blair’s actions is that a ban could cost

jobs by forcing Formula 1 to go abroad - and wouldn’t in any case

prevent motor sport tobacco advertising from appearing on our TV

screens. But surely Labour knew that when it formulated its manifesto

commitment. If not, then what is its manifesto worth? You may well ask

after its splendid array of U-turns from abolishing hunting to

increasing cold weather payments for pensioners.



The most charitable explanation for this shambles is that Mr Blair and

his Government are monumentally incompetent. Alternatively, they are

naive.



Both are worrying. So, too is the apparent way Mr Blair runs his

Government without reference to collective responsibility. But the real

problem may be that the sanctimonious Mr Blair arrogantly believes he

can do no wrong.



A good PR adviser would tell him his wings need clipping for his own

good.



Over to you, Cabinet.



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