Jowell sees off detractors with help from Labour sisterhood

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Indy Politics

Tessa Jowell survived the worst 24 hours of her career after a show of strength from the "sisterhood" of Labour women MPs, including at least seven ministers. Ms Jowell, who separated from her husband at the weekend, was thrown a lifeline by her colleagues, who gave her a powerful show of support in the Commons yesterday.

Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, leaned across and gave her the thumbs up. Also on the front bench were Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, Hilary Armstrong, the Chief whip, Dawn Primarolo, Hazel Blears, Harriet Harman and Margaret Hodge.

The Culture Secretary came out fighting after being cleared of misleading MPs by Sir Philip Mawer, the Commons standards commissioner. She had been accused of failing to register a gift of £350,000 to her husband, David Mills, allegedly from Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, and her husband's stake in a pub chain called the Old Monk Company while she was driving through longer drinking hours.

Brushing aside criticism by the Tory MP Nigel Evans who called for her resignation, Ms Jowell said: "With regard to your question about Old Monk Company, I had never heard of this company or the transactions until this weekend. I understand the shares were never owned by my husband."

A spokeswoman for Sir Philip said later: "We can confirm that on the basis of the information available he didn't learn anything in the course of his discussion with her that indicated a change in her entry was needed at present."

Ms Jowell still faced calls by Labour MPs to stand down from chairing Labour's campaign in the London elections next month because of fears that her husband's large financial investments in tax-avoiding offshore funds have damaged the party. Two Labour MPs, Kate Hoey and Glenda Jackson, were among the sceptics who warned that she was still not safe.

Some critics of Tony Blair were accused of trying to get at the Prime Minister by bringing down Ms Jowell, one of his closest allies in the Cabinet. One ally of Gordon Brown said: "It's a nightmare for her. She is still not in the clear."

Ms Jowell answered one of the most damaging claims - that she either lied to a mortgage company or Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, last week - by admitting failing to read a mortgage application form. She took out a mortgage for £625,000 in 2000 on her London home with her husband so that he could invest the money in an offshore fund. That was paid within a month partly with the "gift" of £350,000 to her husband by Mr Berlusconi or his associates.

Two years later, she again signed another mortgage application form for Mortgage Express in which she said there were no outstanding loans on the house. Last week, she told Sir Gus who was conducting an inquiry into her affairs, that she was unaware that he had paid off the first loan until her husband told her in 2004. A former Tory cabinet minister said: "However you slice it, she either lied to the mortgage company or Sir Gus."

Ms Jowell's aides denied she had misled Sir Gus and said she had not read the second mortgage form. "It would not be surprising that she didn't read the mortgage document from start to finish. They are very long documents," said the aide.

Tony Blair also gave Ms Jowell his support, saying she was doing a fine job. Her programme is packed - today she will hold a breakfast meeting with Mr Blair and broadcasting chiefs at Downing Street to discuss the digital switchover. Tomorrow, as Minister for Women, she will deliver a speech marking women's day. Next week, she is publishing a White Paper on the BBC charter before flying to Australia for the Commonwealth Games via India, where she will make a speech to Bollywood film industry chiefs.

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