Matthew Norman: The greed of Blair's inner cabal is exposed

Now the crooked finger of fate points to the last of the Prime Minister's super-loyalists
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The Independent Online

Whatever the outcome might be, and despite yesterday's stay of execution the prognosis doesn't look great, the Tessa Jowell biopic is going to require one hell of a character actress in the title role.

How this forthcoming tragedy-over-triumph tear-jerker/light comedy of New Labour manners will be financed, it is too early to predict. It might be funded by National Lottery money, the application approved by the Culture Secretary herself (no conflict of interest there).

My own preference would be for a joint production between Mr Murdoch's Sky, to whose lobbying for exclusive rights to live Test match cricket she surrendered despite a prior deal to the contrary struck by her predecessor, Chris Smith, and one of the many TV stations owned by the Italian Prime Minister Signor Berlusconi (B to his chums). But whoever makes it will, as I say, need a particularly versatile performer in the lead. Every public figure has their paradoxes, and generally these are what make people intriguing, but in this we appear to be dealing with one of the most notoriously difficult things for any actor to play convincingly, the dual personality.

On the one hand, she deemed herself capable of serving Her Majesty's Government as minister for Women, a role centred upon the search for absolute gender equality. On the other, she pliantly yielded control of her own financial affairs to the old man without so much as a vague enquiry after the need for that short-lived £350,000 mortgage on her home.

As a former psychiatric social worker, she may even know if there is a technical term for this. If not, given how infuriating the condition must be - as Ms Jowell you're a major power in the land; at home as Mrs Mills, an empty- headed fluffball; the pressure to remember who you're supposed to be at any one time would be intensely irksome - Irritable Jowell Syndrome will have to do for now.

Two precedents come to mind. The first is the Fast Show character, played by Arabella Weir, who is a fearsome office tyrant with her female staff until the moment any man walks through the door, at which point her voice rises six decibels and the simpering baby talk begins. The other is the Prime Minister.

Just like Mrs Mills - and it is crucially important to distinguish between the two personalities - Mr Tony Blair takes a laissez-faire attitude to property deals struck in his joint name. He apparently knew as much about the con man-brokered purchase of those Bristol flats as Mrs Mills did about her mortgage. At the risk of jumping the gun, you wonder whether this New Labour experiment with delegating all personal finance decisions to a spouse has been a tremendous success.

For anyone like me who a week ago thought a hedge fund meant the proceeds of a televised charity appeal on behalf of the Anti-Privet League, it's all a bit unnerving. With Tessa, it isn't a question of crookedness in any Berlusconian sense, of the kind that would once have interested her sister-in-law Barbara Mills when she ran the Serious Fraud Office; more a matter of leaving an acrid taste in the mouth, and sending the hackles up to the top floor.

Nothing's too good for the workers, of course, but almost as distasteful as the tortuous trans-global cyber journey from account to account of these comparatively vast sums is the blitheness with which they're dismissed by the protagonists. Especially when you recall that a few years ago, as Ms Jowell, she was warning the young unemployed that if they didn't attend a sort of boot camp to learn how to clean their nails their benefits would be cut.

It doesn't help that she has a bit of form at playing the two separate roles. As public health minister in 1997, Ms Jowell oversaw the reversal of policy on tobacco advertising in Formula One after Bernie Ecclestone's £1m gift. As Mrs Mills the mousey wife she was of course living with a man who until very recently had been a legal adviser to Benetton, one of the Grand Prix teams so reliant on cigarette advertising. It goes without saying that neither of the twin personae knew what the other was up to, so there couldn't, thank the Lord, have been a conflict of interest. But once again it didn't look so good.

It is nebulous perception more than anything that is the root of her problem today. In isolation, she could comfortably survive the embarrassment, and even win sympathy if and when her husband stands trial in Rome and goes on to do a spell of Italian bird. But in context as the latest in a long and dismal line of iffy dealings involving the PM's closest political allies, the fall-out is multiplied many fold until it becomes lethal.

One after the other, members of Mr Blair's inner cabal have come to seem arrogant, dishonest, reckless, greedy and dodgy, and people are sick to the eye teeth of it. Alastair Campbell was called a liar by a High Court libel judge, Peter Mandelson had his own mortgage moment, Stephen Byers told whoppers to the Commons, Alan Milburn used his inside knowledge and status as a former health secretary to trouser a lucrative advisory post with a private health firm, David Blunkett did the same with a DNA testing company ... Every major figure close to the PM (and we haven't the space even to start with that one woman plague of locusts, Cherie) has come to be viewed as grubby at the very least.

Now the crooked finger of fate points in turn to the last of the Blair superloyalists, the woman who took the lead in dissuading him from resigning when he had his wobble a couple of years ago.

She cannot soldier on for long as the minister responsible for regulating the media being hunted down remorselessly by the media (a sort of gamekeeper turned poachee) any more than as an object of national suspicion and ridicule. Regardless of Sir Gus's findings as confirmed by the ultimate arbiter of ministerial propriety, the Prime Minister (yet again, phew, no conflict of interest there), the time approaches to jettison the hard-headed, careerist Ms Jowell for ever in favour of the air-headed mortgage signatory that is the deliciously fluffy Mrs Mills.

Hats off for the doughty fight to stay in office, though. What she lacks in judgement (and she studied the implications of her abortive gambling Bill half as carefully as the family finances), she almost makes up for in pluck and chutzpah. In fact, Cheek By Jowell seems the likely title for a movie which might well be a vehicle (in this case, almost certainly a hearse) for that famously tough Hollywood negotiator/on-screen queen of ditziness Goldie Hawn.

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