Tessa Jowell: A genuine separation, or a cynical attempt to save her career?

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Tessa Jowell slipped out of the back door of Lord Falconer's country cottage in Flintham, Nottinghamshire, yesterday before being driven back to her London home in a black limousine to prepare for her Culture department's questions in the Commons today.

It was a tense homecoming, and one of Labour's most popular cabinet ministers had plenty of time to ask herself whether she had done the right thing following the announcement at the weekend that she was separating from her husband, David Mills. He had already left for Italy where he could face charges of accepting a £350,000 bribe from Silvio Berlusconi to cover up for corruption.

Ms Jowell's children rallied to her support when she returned to the house at the centre of the controversy over a loan to invest in an offshore fund which had been paid off within a month by the Italian "gift". She also took a call from Tony Blair, who underlined his support for her.

She could have decided to quit the Cabinet and fight alongside her husband when he faces the Milan prosecutors, but he had let her down once too often. She remains convinced that the Milan prosecutors were piling the pressure on him to confess, using the fact that he is married to a cabinet friend of Mr Blair's. She told friends: "I just realised he was my problem, and I was his."

Cabinet colleagues are also supportive of Ms Jowell, and they appear confident that she has done enough to save her cabinet post. The apparent marriage break-up shocked even those calling for her resignation. The statement issued by Mr Mills' solicitor made it clear the separation was temporary but neither partner thinks that a reconciliation would happen quickly.

Mr Blair was dragged into the row last week when he cleared Ms Jowell of breaching the ministerial code of conduct by failing to tell her permanent secretary about the "gift" of £350,000 from Mr Berlusconi or his associates. The first hint that she then intended to distance herself from the mud sticking to Mr Mills came in her statement following the inquiry by Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary.

In it she heaped the blame for the scandal on her husband, who, she said, had kept her in the dark for four years about the loan.

There were even claims at the weekend that Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's former spin doctor, was "pulling the strings" behind Ms Jowell's decision to separate from Mr Mills, as the pressure mounted on her to quit her cabinet post. Mr Campbell, it was suggested, had urged a temporary separation to protect Mr Blair from the string of allegations that were sullying the reputation of Mr Mills.

It was Mr Campbell who notoriously told Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary, that he had to choose between his mistress, his wife and his career, when Mr Cook and his wife Margaret were in the VIP lounge of an airport. Mr Cook chose his mistress, whom he married, but was later sacked as Foreign Secretary by Mr Blair.

In truth, Mr Campbell was consulted by Ms Jowell and Mr Mills, who are close friends of Mr Campbell and his partner Fiona Millar, about the way that the story should be played for the weekend newspapers. But friends vehemently denied he was responsible for hatching the strategy. "There was no strategy," said one senior colleague of Ms Jowell. "She made up her own mind, and told Alastair what she intended to do."

Ms Jowell told friends she was "almost physically sick'' at reports that the separation was a cynical ploy to get them over a difficult weekend and minimise the damage for Mr Blair. "It was absolutely revolting," she told one ally.

The statement issued through Mr Mills' solicitor on Saturday said Ms Jowell had been angered by his behaviour. The turning point was the letter which Mr Mills had written to the authorities in Dubai where he was trying to set up a practice stating that he was a friend of Mr Blair's. That showed how dangerous he could be. "He's been an idiot," she told allies.

A string of cabinet ministers yesterday took to the airwaves to emphasise that the decision was a personal one for Ms Jowell and her husband. The Labour peer Baroness Jay, a close friend of Ms Jowell and her husband, said the couple were both "very, very miserable" about the separation. David Miliband, a cabinet colleague, dismissed as "grotesque" the suggestion that the separation was to allow Ms Jowell and the Government to distance themselves from Mr Mills.