Alan Watkins: An all-too innocent Ms Jowell

She is perhaps more liked than admired or respected
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Irrespective of her separation - which has more than a touch of the Alastair Campbells about it - Ms Tessa Jowell now finds herself in much the same position as Harold Macmillan during the Profumo affair in 1963. On that occasion a clubland versifier gave us:

Of Tory ministers it is said

That all had shared Miss Keeler's bed,

Save two: Sir Winston, who was too old,

And Harold Macmillan, who wasn't told.

There is another, more distinguished piece of verse, by Hilaire Belloc, which is also relevant to the predicament in which Ms Jowell finds herself:

The husbands and the wives

Of this select society

Lead independent lives

Of infinite variety.

This likewise was to do with sex rather than with money. It was directed at the frivolous ways of the circle surrounding the Liberal leader H H Asquith. Not that the Liberals of the day did not lack their financial scandals as well. David Lloyd George was lucky to emerge painfully singed but not fatally burnt from the Marconi affair. On the whole, however, it is fair to say that, while Conservatives and Liberals go in for sex (Mr Mark Oaten and Mr Simon Hughes gallantly maintaining their party's grand old tradition), Labour's weakness has been money.

In the 1990s, true, there was a shift in the terms of trade. The Tories started to go in for both. It was not wholly of John Major's making. I heard his Back to Basics speech at the party conference and read it several times afterwards. It did not contain a single reference to sexual intercourse, whether expressly or by implication. It was all about reading, writing and arithmetic.

The sex bit was inserted by Mr Tim Collins, then the prime minister's spin merchant, who was asked by journalists whether the speech meant that Mr Major expected the highest personal standards from his ministers. Mr Collins replied that that was indeed what it meant. The trouble started from there.

It was then compounded by the financial antics of figures such as Mr Jonathan Aitken and Mr Neil Hamilton, who, it can be seen more clearly in retrospect, acted merely as John-the-Baptist figures for the bolder spirits from the succeeding regime of Mr Tony Blair.

Paradoxically - what journalists now call "ironically" - it was Mr Aitken, Mr Hamilton and a few others like them who made criminality on a grander scale possible. Mr Campbell labelled their activities as "sleaze", which infected the whole government, so making more likely the election of Mr Blair and the emergence of a more skilful race of political entrepreneurs.

As it happens, I do not include Ms Jowell among them. She is a Blairite minister who is also popular, a considerable achievement in itself. While Mr Peter Mandelson was generally disliked, and Mr David Blunkett had numerous enemies, Ms Jowell is a parliamentary favourite, at any rate on the Labour side. Her one discreditable action has been to surrender Test cricket to Mr Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television at the expense of a non-paying channel (most recently Channel 4), so breaking a promise made by her predecessor Chris Smith.

However, she is perhaps more liked than admired or respected, a distinction that has become clearer in the past week. Her husband, Mr David Mills, said to her: "Kindly sign this piece of paper, my dear - a mere formality, I assure you - while I put on my running shoes." This she duly proceeded to do, with several other pieces of paper, without making detailed inquiries or asking questions of any description.

I do wish, by the way, that the newspapers would stop referring to the now separated Mr Mills as an "international lawyer", as if he were a combination of Hugo Grotius and Arnold McNair. I have known one or two international lawyers in my time. I was taught the subject by Sir Robert Jennings, later President of the International Court. They tend to be dry, academic persons, not greatly interested in money.

Certainly they, or some of them, make a great deal of it. The countries they represent have a lot of the stuff at their disposal for the purposes of litigation, even more of it than the Police Federation has. But Mr Mills is a former barrister who is now a solicitor and specialises in shifting large quantities of money around the globe, usually to avoid tax.

He does not seem to have been uniformly successful in his activities on his own account. From the television pictures, the North-London house he owns with Ms Jowell does not seem to be a very nice house. In fact (by which I mean, as usual, in my opinion), I have a nicer house, though I do not attach any great importance to these things. And I am not married to a cabinet minister, and have never invested in a hedge fund in my life. Indeed, I would not recognise one even if it were served up on toast with Branston Pickle.

It is Mr Mills rather than Ms Jowell who, in his way of life, epitomises New Labour and its obsession with personal wealth. It is not, of course, a new phenomenon. The party's traditional disposition towards financial rather than sexual scandals is a demonstration of that. In her excellent biography of Jennie Lee, our first and best Arts Minister, Patricia Hollis shows how Miss Lee and her husband, Aneurin Bevan, had their relatively opulent way of life effectively subsidised by those early property developers Harold and Howard Samuel. And there is still a mist surrounding the precise financial relationship that obtained between James Callaghan and the Cardiff financier Julian Hodge.

I date the Blair government's more shameless obsession with money from his and Mrs Blair's early and mistaken decision to sell their Islington house, only a cricket ball's throw from my own.

Barrister: Are you seriously telling My Lord and the jury, Mr Watkins, that you could throw a cricket ball from your garden and hit Mr Blair's former abode?

Myself: Not I, perhaps, but a proper cricketer could, and certainly a mortar bomber.

The Judge: If you persist in this spirit, Mr Watkins, I shall have no alternative under recent legislation but to send a transcript of your evidence to the Attorney General.

Myself: I do tend to get a little carried away from time to time, My Lord.

The Judge: Well, I only wish you could arrange for someone to carry you back again. (Loud and sycophantic laughter.)

I am making no predictions about whether Ms Jowell finally gets off.