Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, remains in office despite weeks of accusations about her knowledge of suspect financial dealings on the part of her now estranged husband.
Ms Jowell was cleared of wrongdoing on March 2nd when Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell reported the conclusions of his speedy investigation into the affair in a letter to Theresa May, shadow Leader of the House, who had requested the inquiry.
Sir Gus ruled that the Secretary of State had not broken the ministerial code of conduct by failing to declare the gift of £350,000 that appeared in her husband’s Swiss bank account in October 1999. The argument from Ms Jowell, and supported by the government, being that the Secretaty of State did not know the gift existed.
As Ms Jowell returned to work this week to face the House for departmental questions, her husband, international corporate lawyer David Mills, continued to grapple with accusations from Italian magistrates that the £350,000 gift was a bribe he had taken from Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Judges in Milan allege that the sum given to Mr Mills was a reward for testimony that he gave to keep a ‘Mr B’ out of trouble during corruption trials in 1997 and 1998. Both Mr Mills and Mr Berlusconi deny the charges. With Italian elections in a few weeks predicted to be a close contest for the Prime Minister, Mr Berlusconi argues that the charges are politically motivated.
When the allegations first arose Jowell claimed that the family finances were no business of hers, and that she knew nothing of the controversial sum of money. Up to this point the situation appeared embarrassing for Ms Jowell, if not a little incredulous that such a large sum of money would have passed her notice, but it did not transpire that the Secretary of State had done anything wrong.
It was evidence obtained by the Sunday Times that Ms Jowell had signed a form authorising a loan of more than £400,000 on the couple’s North London home, which has ensnared Tessa Jowell in her husband’s web of complicated financial dealings. The loan was swiftly paid off with the money Mr Mills had received as a gift.
Despite repeated calls for a full and comprehensive independent inquiry from a handful of government and opposition MPs, nothing as yet has been forthcoming. This comes as the Committee on Standards in Public Life this week published its annual report, warning that the system for policing the ministerial code is undermining public confidence in politicians and government.
Described as a popular minister, Ms Jowell is praised for her role in helping London secure the Olympic bid for the 2012 games. But it seems hard not to conclude that she has been tainted by this episode. The Prime Minister and other colleagues are rallying around her to send out a signal that she will not resign. Even if blameless, however, the affair may still damage Ms Jowell’s ability to do her job.
The Local Government Minister, David Milliband, dismissed as a “grotesque suggestion” claims that she had announced her separation from her husband as part of a spin operation to save her job. While he may be right about the hurtful nature of such comments, the truth is that the distance placed between Ms Jowell and her husband will make her position in government more secure.