A furious Tessa Jowell decided to separate from her husband David Mills after it emerged that the businessman had attempted to trade on his relationship with Tony Blair, The Independent on Sunday can today reveal.
However, the couple's announcement yesterday that they were to live apart failed to win the Culture Secretary even a temporary reprieve from the intense pressure created by her husband's business dealings.
Ms Jowell will tomorrow face calls to answer an urgent question in the House of Commons over her claims not to have known about a £344,000 payment to her husband, which is at the centre of an Italian corruption investigation.
In a statement from Mr Mills's lawyer announcing the separation, the scale of his estranged wife's anger was vividly underlined. "He is as mortified as she has been angered by the embarrassment he has caused her," the statement said. Allies denied that the lawyer's statement, faxed to the Press Association, was a cynical "career-saving move".
Instead, friends said, it was a mutual decision to split for a trial period. There was little disguising Ms Jowell's fury, however, over what the statement termed the "dreadful strain".
Friends of the Culture Secretary were keen to deny suggestions that the decision was "synthetic". One said: "There has been a breakdown of trust, having learnt about things he has done which she didn't know about."
However, it was reported last night that Mr Mills and Ms Jowell consulted Alastair Campbell, a close friend of the couple, on how to present news of their separation. Mr Campbell's involvement, if proved, will deepen Labour MPs' cynicism over the announcement.
Conservative backbenchers are determined to press her to explain why, if she was ignorant of the cash used to help pay off a mortgage on her London home, she signed an application for a second loan.
The separation came after it was disclosed in a leaked letter that her husband told regulators in Dubai that he had the "sympathy" of Tony Blair.
Mr Mills said: "You will also know that I am married to a member of the Cabinet of this country ... but I have the support and sympathy of very many people in public life, from the Prime Minister down."
One close friend said of the minister: "She has been very emotional. Things like the Dubai letter clearly put Tessa in an embarrassing position."
Ms Jowell went to ground with friends yesterday, while her husband is thought to have left the country for a crucial meeting with his lawyers ahead of an expected indictment on corruption charges in Italy this week.
Her allies said a line should now be drawn under her role in matters relating to her husband. Ms Jowell's parliamentary private secretary, Huw Irranca-Davies, appealed for her to be allowed to get on with her job.
She would be back at Westminster on Monday where she will face Culture, Media and Sport questions in the Commons, he said.
Mr Irranca-Davies dismissed as "cynical spin" suggestions that the announcement of the separation was a "career-saving move" by Ms Jowell.
"This is a horrendous decision for anybody to take," he said.
"It has been clear through all of this that there has been no questioning of Tessa Jowell's standard of conduct in her role as Secretary of State."
However, there was little other visible support for Ms Jowell, with Mr Blair conspicuously avoiding questions on the issue when he arrived to address trade unionists in London. Many Labour MPs remain extremely uneasy about the world of large payments moving through off-shore companies which the affair has exposed.
The Tory MP Nigel Evans, who sits on the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said that he would continue to pursue the issue of whether Ms Jowell had properly declared all payments made to her and her husband. "The separation is very much a personal matter. Clearly it is time for reflection for a number of people but at the same time it still leaves questions to be answered," he said.
Mr Mills, a corporate lawyer, is accused of receiving a £350,000 bribe in 2000 from Mr Berlusconi over evidence he gave in a court case against him.
An investigation by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, found she should have declared the payment - which Mr Mills said came from a Neapolitan shipowner - to her Permanent Secretary at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Mr Blair, however, accepted her explanation that she was told by her husband about the money only four years later.
But fresh doubts were cast on her account when it emerged that in 2002 she had signed papers for a second loan secured on the home in which she had to declare whether there were any other loans secured on the property.Reuse content