THAT there might be much less to Tony Blair than met the eye was obvious not long into his tenancy of No 10.
The new Labour government, you may recall, was keen to introduce a ban on tobacco advertising, a move which many regarded as cost-free and straightforward. Among those, however, who thought it was terrible idea was Bernie Ecclestone, the former used car dealer who had become a billionaire as the boss of Formula One. As chance would have it, he had donated £1 million to the Labour Party. Thus a meeting with Mr Blair was hastily arranged and – hey presto! – the proposed legislation was adapted to exempt the boy racers.
If nothing else, Mr Ecclestone's intervention showed that he was not a man averse to flexing his muscles and calling in favours. Having risen from the forecourt to become king of the pits, he has always been vigorous in protecting his assets. Like a latterday Napoleon, with whom he has more in common than his diminutive stature, he was ever obsessed with extending his empire. Driven by an overweening appetite for money, this has led him to Bahrain where the next race in the F1 calendar is due to take place this weekend.
My sincere hope is that it will not but I suspect there is fat chance of me getting my wish. Mr Ecclestone will make sure of that. Having seen it cancelled last year in the face of civil unrest, he is determined that the Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead as planned. Much is riding on that fact, not the least of which are Mr Ecclestone's authority and reputation. While Amnesty International continues to highlight the abuses the Bahrain's oligarchs heap upon their citizens, the F1 circus and its whip-cracking ringmaster behave like French royalty before it was dragged to the guillotine.
Mr Ecclestone argues that there is no connection between sport and politics, that the grand prix is just another race. Only the most devout follower of this outrageous event can swallow such bunkum. For example, the grand prix has been launched under the slogan "UniF1ed. One Nation in Celebration". As one commentator has noted, "If that is not a political slogan for a divided country, it is difficult to understand what is."
The truth is that the grand prix is all about politics and very little to do with sport. The regime of course would like us to think otherwise and there's a fair chance that it will get away it. It will be interesting – perhaps for the first time ever – to watch and listen to coverage of the race. Will the BBC's and Sky's commentators make much mention of the rioters and demonstrators who continue to haunt the Bahraini authorities despite their best efforts to marginalise and brutalise them? I rather doubt it. In an ideal world, one in which conscience rules, broadcasters would have no part in such a tawdry charade. They could, as activists insist, boycott the grand prix. But don't count on it. Nor are any of the teams normally on the grid likely to express any dissent, other than to voice concern for the safety of their own members. They should be ashamed of themselves.
Meanwhile, other questions arise, such as those concerning the ecological madness of constructing such a circuit in the middle of a desert. That it was built by many of the people now throwing bricks in the streets is sublimely ironic. Charged with advising on how to keep them in check, is John Yates, who recently resigned from the Met in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. Apparently, he was summoned by Bahrain's king, Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, to supervise reform of his police force. He hopes, says Mr Yates, to help it "deal better with public order, arrest and detention issues".
How interested the insanely-rich king is in reform remains a matter of suspicion and speculation. For the moment, though, Bahrain gives the impression of a state suffering from acute delusion, its rulers using all the might they can muster to quell their opponents, while staging a race that is more grand hubris than prix. And all in the tarnished name of sport.
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