When the news broke yesterday morning that Tessa Jowell and David Mills were to separate after 30 years of marriage, their closest friends expressed deep dismay and shock.
The couple formed the nucleus of a tight-knit and glamorous network of the rich and powerful that stretched across politics, the media and the arts. Their relationship was regarded as rock solid and one of the most romantic in politics.
They were constantly on the phone to each other during the day, and their dinner parties and cosy country weekends in the Cotswolds were a popular fixture in New Labour's social calendar. Friends who have known them for 30 years said they could not believe the couple had broken up.
"I am really, really upset. This is a tragedy for everyone. It's a tragedy for their children. We have known them both for 30 years. They love each other," said one close political friend.
That Tessa adored David Mills was no secret at Westminster. In fact, it was her infatuation with her husband that, to some, explained her decision for so long to stand by a man whose Byzantine business affairs and questionable links to the Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi, were threatening to undermine not only her reputation but her political career.
Although she fiercely defended her husband in public, continuing to insist he had done nothing wrong, friends say that she was growing more embarrassed by the steady drip of revelations about his seemingly murky business life.
Allegations from Italian prosecutors that MR Mills accepted a "gift" from the Italian PM was putting an incredible strain on the marriage and dragging Ms Jowell into a political row that showed no sign of abating. What was more, it was beginning to embarrass the Prime Minister - a political ally for whom the Secretary of State for Culture once claimed she would throw herself under a bus.
But it was the public revelation last week that her husband had tried to use his wife's name and close relationship with Mr Blair in support of a lawyer's licence in Dubai that is said to have tipped the marriage over the edge.
Ms Jowell, a politician who values her reputation for straight dealing and openness, is said to have been acutely embarrassed that he told the Dubai authorities last November that he should be granted a licence to practise, because he had the support of figures in public life, "from the Prime Minister down".
She had been fastidious in keeping her political affairs separate from his business dealings, but it was swiftly becoming apparent that her husband had not been so punctilious. Ms Jowell was furious.
As breakfast tables across Britain were being cleared yesterday morning, a carefully worded statement was faxed to the Press Association by Mr Mills's solicitor, David Kirk. "This whole business has imposed a dreadful strain on my client and his marriage. They hope that over time their relationship can be restored, but, given the current circumstances, they have agreed to a period of separation. They ask that the privacy of their children be fully respected."
The statement, in which Mr Mills spoke of his "mortification" and Ms Jowell of her "anger", took close friends of the couple and staff in Ms Jowell's private office by surprise. "We only found out about it this morning ," said one aide. "We had no idea they were going to separate."
Downing Street spin officials were in close contact with Ms Jowell's staff yesterday, fuelling speculation that the decision to have a "temporary separation" was part of an elaborate PR strategy designed to see off further revelations.
Some were quick to recall Alastair Campbell's rule that no minister could survive more than two weeks of a media feeding frenzy. Ms Jowell's 14th day runs out today.
However, friends quickly poured cold water on the theory, claiming that Ms Jowell's marriage was the enduring priority in her life and that the decision had been taken after months of consideration.
"The idea that this is a political fix is complete rubbish. Tessa loves David, she truly adores him," said one family friend. "This is a separation that gives them time to focus and space to think and to rebuild their relationship. You don't have a trial separation with your spouse because of some political row. They are both emotional about this."
This is not the first time that Ms Jowell has been forced to make a choice between her marriage and her political career. It was in 1978 and early on in her active life in the Labour Party that Ms Jowell had to make a tough decision between realising her goal to become a Labour MP and preserving her personal life. The former psychiatric social worker had been chosen to defend a Labour majority in an important parliamentary by-election in Ilford, Essex.
At the time, she was in the throes of divorcing her first husband, the social scientist Roger Jowell, and having a relationship with David Mills, a man who was not yet divorced from his wife.
With her personal life threatening to destroy her political aspirations, she issued a bold statement declaring her love for David Mills. She lost the election, but they were married the next year - forming an enduring partnership and creating what she later described as a "large, very close-knit family".
His three children, including Eleanor, an ebullient senior journalist at The Sunday Times, were swiftly integrated into the family. Later, the couple went on to have two children of their own, Jessie - a schoolfriend of Ms Dynamite - and Matthew, a golf prodigy who attended an elite training academy in Florida.
Tessa Jowell and David Mills were both Camden councillors when they met in the late 1970s. She was the chair of the social services committee , and said to be"quiet and charming". He was described by friends at the time as a "more low-profile" figure on the council, but a fiercely bright linguist and lawyer, and a part of the influential Mills dynasty.
His brother John, a far more high-profile figure on the council, was married to Dame Barbara Mills, a former director of the Serious Fraud Office and Director of Public Prosecutions.
David Mills is seen as a cultivated, slightly louche figure who combines a flair for languages and cookery with a love of classical music. He plays Mozart on his clarinet and sometimes locks himself in his study to listen to recordings. He is also a member of one of Britain's most exclusive golf clubs, Swinley Forest near Ascot, Berkshire, where he has a handicap of 10.
"It's a very peculiarly English club, slightly P G Wodehouse," said one golfing pal. "He is very good at golf."
Friends said the relationship with her husband was a solid one and Ms Jowell was not the simpering wife that has been portrayed in the press in the past week. They said she was a feisty figure who "probably had some pretty harsh words to say to him over this whole Berlusconi affair."
"She is definitely not afraid to speak her mind. I think we can assume that things have not been exactly comfortable in the Jowell household while all this has been going on," said one friend of the family.
Friends say that the couple's wide network of friends has been supportive as the events have unfolded. They include Margaret Hodge, who forged a lifelong friendship with the couple while she was at Camden, Harriet Harman, another Labour minister and Baroness Jay, the former Labour leader in the House of Lords.
Guests at their weekend cottage at Darlingscott, a pretty hamlet in the Cotswolds, have included ministers needing rest and recuperation. Among them were David Blunkett, who stayed there as his personal life began to unwind. Yesterday, friends whom Tessa Jowell has supported in the past were themselves offering the cabinet minister help.
Yesterday, Ms Jowell was out of London, with friends, and said to be "very upset and very emotional" about the separation.
"She is not in a state for me to probe. She is really upset. This hasn't been a sudden decision," said one aide. " This is a mutual decision."
But others are speculating that the marriage may survive and there may be room for a reconciliation when the tangled mess of her husband's business affairs is finally resolved. "This is a trial separation in a marriage that has been going on for many years," said one friend. "It is not a split."
CIRCLE OF FRIENDS
The soul sister: Harriet Harman
The constitutional affairs minister has been a close friend and political ally of Tessa Jowell for years. Often seen together in the corridors at Westminster. Both feisty and sociable.
The head girl: Margaret Jay
Grande dame of the Labour establishment. Her friendship with Jowell was cemented when Baroness Jay was Leader of the Lords. Often seen dining together and exchanging gossip.
The Svengali: Alastair Campbell
They co-operated over London's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games and still socialise together. He has played golf with her husband - but not as well as him. Likely to be hovering in the background.
The celeb contact: Ms Dynamite
The singer-songwriter is a schoolfriend of Jowell's daughter. Clashed indirectly with Jowell when she was a headline act at an anti-war concert that Jowell briefly tried to ban.
The media mate: Matthew D'Ancona
The new editor of The Spectator served with Jowell on a body overseeing the Millennium Dome and they remained good friends. He wrote a strongly supportive article in the Sunday Telegraph.Reuse content