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
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
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
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
Over to you, Cabinet.