Former prime minister Tony Blair is be investigated amid claims that he acted improperly in attempting to find ways of exempting Formula One from an impending tobacco sponsorship ban.

The speaker of the House of Commons has said that he is 'deeply concerned' that Blair may have disguised meetings with F1 commercial guru Bernie Ecclestone at the same time as instructing junior ministers to find a means of allowing tobacco sponsorship to continue beyond the deadline for such advertising to cease. The instruction came within a months of Ecclestone depositing ?1m in Labour Party funds.

Government sources insist that Blair's request did not come 'hours' after a meeting with Ecclestone in late 1997, but documents recently released under the Freedom of Information Act suggest otherwise, and speaker Michael Martin has now said that he intends to look carefully at the claims. Ecclestone's donation was later returned after the press picked up on the possible connection between the talks and the instruction to exempt F1 from the advertising ban.

A briefing note to Cabinet Office reveals that while the date of the request was 16 October, and that Blair had instructed senior aide Jonathan Powell to ring then health minister Tessa Jowell to discuss the issue that evening, the PM apparently wanted to make out that it was a date nearly two weeks later, in order to tie in with previous claims that it did not coincide with his meeting with Ecclestone. Other documents also claim that Blair did not want it to appear that the decision to exempt F1 had been his alone, lest it appear that he was acting on a request from Ecclestone.

Despite Blair appearing on the BBC at the time and claiming that he was a 'pretty straight kind of guy' in an effort to distance himself from an affair he feared may bring a premature end to his leadership, two Conservative Party MPs have alleged that the former PM had categorically denied that his instruction did not tally with his meetings with Ecclestone. The government insists that the decision was taken later in the year.

Current PM Gordon Brown, then chancellor of the exchequer, is also alleged to have denied knowledge of Ecclestone's donation despite being aware that the F1 supremo had made the contribution at the start of the year. The public was not aware of the ?1m gift as, at the time, donations to political parties did not have to declared.

"I am deeply concerned that two MPs have said they were deliberately misled," Martin admitted, revealing that he has asked the MPs to provide written accounts and evidence in order to better aid a probe.


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