Blair apologizes over campaign finance issue British prime minister defends decision, but says it was not 'handled well'


LONDON -- Trying to use personal popularity to put an end to his government's first crisis in public confidence, Prime Minister Tony Blair went on television yesterday to apologize for the way he had dealt with a contentious campaign finance matter.

At issue is an exemption his government granted Formula One auto racing from a ban on tobacco sponsorship for sports and the subsequent revelations that the head of the racing organization that benefited from the decision was a large donor to the Labor Party and took part in a crucial meeting with the prime minister.

In a BBC interview from Chequers, the country residence of British prime ministers, Blair defended the decision, saying the same exemption he had recommended existed for Formula One in countries including Germany, Australia and Canada.

He argued that banning cigarette ads for Formula One in Britain would send the sport, which is highly lucrative to Britain, to countries in Asia that place no restriction on such advertising. He said an unwanted appearance of a conflict of interest had arisen because the matter was not "handled well."

"For that I take full responsibility," he said, "and I apologize for that."

Saying he was "hurt and upset" by accusations of questionable ethics, Blair, who ran for office on a pledge to clean up government, added with emphasis, "I would never, ever do something wrong or improper or change a policy because someone supported or donated to the Labor Party."

He noted that his government had reported the $1.7 million donation and a second offer of the same amount from Bernie Ecclestone, the head of the racing organization, to the Parliament Committee on Standards in Public Life, and, on the panel's advice, was returning the original amount.

"It was hardly the act of people who are concealing things," he said.

Critics have said he took these steps only after newspapers made embarrassing revelations of the donations and of relationships some of his ministers had with organizations supporting Formula One racing.

Pub Date: 11/17/97

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