Blair calls Jowell to pledge his support

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair telephoned Tessa Jowell last night to promise support for his beleaguered Culture Secretary as the scandal around her husband's financial affairs continued to grow.

"Tony has been absolutely fantastic in his support," said a close friend of Ms Jowell's. "She is going to stay strong and see this through."

Members of the Cabinet rallied around Ms Jowell to send out a united signal that she will not resign. David Miliband, John Prescott's deputy, dismissed as a "grotesque suggestion'' claims that she had announced she was separating from her husband, David Mills, as part of a spin operation to save her job.

One of the messages of support came from Lord Coe, the leader of the Olympic 2012 team, who told her he wanted an early meeting to discuss staging the Games in London.

Ms Jowell told allies she is determined to show that it is "business as usual" when she faces Culture questions in the Commons today. She could face fresh calls to resign, but she has been bolstered by messages of support from Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs.

Labour backbench calls for her to quit were muted. "One is extremely sorry to see a marriage break up, but a lot of these things occurred while the marriage was intact. Her position remains extremely precarious," said a former Labour minister, Peter Kilfoyle.

Frank Dobson, the former cabinet minister, said she should be replaced as co-ordinator of Labour's election campaign for local government in London in May because of the situation caused by allegations her husband is facing in an Italian court. If Mr Mills is prosecuted, things could go "from bad to worse" for Ms Jowell, Mr Dobson told GMTV's Sunday programme. He added that Ms Jowell had done an "enormous amount of good" and he did not think she should quit. But he said there was a feeling that Ms Jowell's lifestyle was "so utterly at variance with most MPs, never mind voters" that it makes it more difficult for the Labour Party to connect with the electorate. "There seems to be a sense in which the Government has lost its touch and its ability to deal with problems."

He added that although questions had been raised about Mr Mills' dealings with the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, Mr Blair's connections were more embarrassing, having holidayed at his villa and declared gifts of watches and necklaces. "She's had no direct relations with Berlusconi at all. The Prime Minister has," Mr Dobson said.

The Labour peer Baroness Jay, a close friend of Ms Jowell and her husband, said that the couple were both "very, very miserable" about the separation.

She told Sky News' Sunday Live that she had spoken to Ms Jowell since the split was announced: "She is very sad and deeply upset about the break-up of her marriage. I think it's a devastating blow to them that the pressures they have both felt under have meant that they just feel now they must give each other some space to try to resolve these problems separately. But I think any question that they are not both deeply saddened and very, very miserable is absolutely wrong."

The International Development Secretary, Hilary Benn, said on ITV1's Jonathan Dimbleby show that the suggestion of the separation being an attempt to save her career was "beneath contempt".

Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's former head of communications, was consulted by Ms Jowell and Mr Mills about how to handle the announcement they were separating, but sources close to Ms Jowell and cabinet colleagues said the decision was hers.

Minister's in-tray

* BROADCASTING

The BBC licence fee. Viewers are becoming disenchanted at the cost of the licence for a colour television set, which is due to rise to £131.50 in April.

* OLYMPICS

Ms Jowell is in charge of delivering the infrastructure to allow the 2012 Olympics to be held. The Olympic village needs to be delivered on budget and on time.

* LOCAL ELECTIONS

Ms Jowell is in charge of leading Labour's campaign for the local elections in London in May. Ministerial colleagues were predicting a possible Labour "meltdown". even before the controversy over her husband, David Mills, engulfed her.

* NATIONAL LOTTERY

Camelot's licence is not due to expire until 2009 but the lobbying has already started for the bidding race for a decision.

* CASINOS

Ms Jowell was forced by a Labour rebellion and a media campaign to reduce the number of supercasinos that would be allowed in Britain from eight to just one. The bids have to be in by the end of the month for a ministerial decision in early 2007.

* TSUNAMI and JULY 7 VICTIMS

Appointed as "victims' minister" by Tony Bla§ir, Ms Jowell is writing to families of the victims of the London bombings and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, asking them for their views on a permanent London memorial, like the memorial garden near the American embassy for the victims of 9/11.

Views from the party

"I think that is a grotesque suggestion frankly. The love and commitment that they have had for each other I think is deep, and the anguish they have been going through is dreadful."

DAVID MILIBAND, DISMISSING SUGGESTIONS THAT SHE WAS ADVISED BY ALASTAIR CAMPBELL TO CHOOSE BETWEEN HER HUSBAND AND HER JOB

"She is obviously very sad and deeply upset about the break-up of her marriage. I think any question that they are not both deeply saddened and very, very miserable is absolutely wrong."

THE LABOUR PEER BARONESS JAY, A CLOSE FRIEND OF MS JOWELL AND HER HUSBAND

"She's done nothing wrong ... Well, as far as I know she's had no direct relations with Berlusconi at all, but the Prime Minister has."

FRANK DOBSON

"I think Tessa is a very honest woman and I have a lot of confidence in her and so do her colleagues, and I'm sure she has tried to do the right thing."

HILARY BENN, SECRETARY OF STATE FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

"One is extremely sorry to see a marriage break-up but a lot of these things occurred while the marriage was intact. Her position remains extremely precarious."

THE FORMER LABOUR MINISTER PETER KILFOYLE

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