Steve Richards: She may have done nothing wrong, but our political culture will destroy Tessa Jowell

I bet my jointly signed mortgage that she did not instigate a cover-up that extends to other departments
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The Independent Online

Who has real power in Britain? For most people the answer is frustratingly obvious. It is those bloody politicians. The elected politicians are so mighty and intimidating ordinary voters feel powerless. There is a crisis in trust. There is a crisis in political engagement. What are those aloof, distant, privileged politicians going to do about it?

I will answer that question by asking another two. If politicians are so powerful, why is it that the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, is battling to save her career when it is not clear what she has done wrong? How is it that the elected Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, faces suspension for a month for a minor skirmish with an irritating reporter door-stepping him late at night? Here they are, these supposedly inaccessible and distant figures being bashed around to the point where they are unable to exercise the extremely limited power that they possessed in the first place.

I have read more or less every allegation made against Ms Jowell. Each minute of the day a new document is leaked in relation to her husband's business activities in Italy. Somewhere in Rome there must be an entire department sweatily distributing material to different media outlets in Britain. I would not be surprised if the Bridlington Gazette had an exclusive relating to this affair. The leaking of a document creates an excitement in itself, even if the new material is not revelatory or is less comprehensible than the plot of a badly written thriller in which a new author is trying too hard.

Even so, the words "Newsnight has obtained a document ..." are enough to get hearts beating around the land. Before long, after a few twists and turns involving mortgages, bribes, and someone named "B" we reach a concluding sentence along these lines: "Although this does not prove that Tessa Jowell did anything wrong, she is in deep trouble and hanging on to her job by a thread."

She co-signed a mortgage on their house that was repaid quickly. Was it in connection with a payment or bribe from the Italian Prime Minister, Berlusconi? She says it was not. In a separate development, the Home Office has apparently been deliberately un-cooperative with the Italian inquiry. Even if this were the case, which I doubt, I bet my jointly signed mortgage that Ms Jowell did not instigate a cover-up that extended to other government departments. Still she hangs by a thread.

Of course there are risks in being married to someone who is immersed, it seems to the point of madness, in the labyrinthine world of Italian politics and business. As the Labour MP Tony Wright noted, it would have been better all round if Ms Jowell's husband had worked for a tiny legal firm in the Home Counties that specialised in a bit of conveyancing.

Still, at a time when there are cries of despair about the might of politicians in this country, note the difference between Britain and Italy. With charges and allegations whirling around his head, Berlusconi remains Prime Minister and in with a chance of winning the current election campaign, while in Britain the wife of a lawyer who may or may not have been involved in dodgy Italian dealings will probably lose her post as a cabinet minister.

Ms Jowell should only resign if it can be demonstrated she acted improperly. Yet I suspect she is doomed whether or not such unequivocal proof can be found. Already she is pulling out of pre-arranged interviews on departmental matters, a sign that she cannot continue with her job. On the day David Blunkett left the Government for the second time last year, Tony Blair told subsequent visitors, "I have been through this lots of times now. I knew which way this one was heading."

Although I am told that Ms Jowell is fighting hard behind the scenes to prove her integrity, this one appears to be heading the same way too. She is trapped in a familiar circuitous nightmare. We have decided she cannot do her job effectively. Therefore she cannot do her job effectively.

The case of Ken Livingstone is more shocking and symptomatic of a deeply embedded complacency in our political culture. Who are the three individuals that have suspended an elected leader? Does anyone know anything about the trio of anonymous mediocrities that have wielded such unaccountable power? We know much about Jowell and Livingstone, yet neither of them have the powers to suspend elected politicians. These unelected nonentities should be subjected to some scrutiny. Have any of them had affairs? Are any of them married to partners with alleged dodgy business dealings? We do not even know what any of them look like.

They form a watchdog that was set up to look over local government. The voters should be the ones capable of that. Yet here they are, these unelected buffoons, never interrogated by self-important interviewers on the media, nor door-stepped by journalists late at night. They are the ones with enormous hidden powers. There are lots of them too.

I recall a cock-up over A-level results three summers ago. The then Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, got the blame, but the responsibility lay elsewhere. A Sir Somebody or Other appeared briefly on the media to offer an explanation and was never seen again. Meanwhile Ms Morris was torn to bits.

It is the same with the rail regulator, virtually unknown to the wider public. A former rail regulator had planned to demand a few more billion pounds from the coffers of the Treasury. He had the power to do so. Who was that regulator married to? Was he dodgy in any way? I am not suggesting he was, but no questions are posed of these people.

We have lost all sense of proportion. Elected politicians are scrutinised 24 hours a day and their careers are threatened if they speak out of turn or marry a corporate lawyer. Meanwhile the mighty media is unregulated and the regulators that wield power are cosy in their powerful anonymity.

Earlier this week, the independent Power Commission published a detailed report calling for sweeping constitutional change. Some of its ideas are exciting and innovative. But the premise fuels the problem. The report suggests that politicians are too distant and are largely responsible for the crisis in trust.

The opposite is the case. Politicians are so wary of moving away from majority opinion that they follow focus groups obsessively. Before they speak or act, they agonise about the way their words will be spun by the most powerful newspapers in the world and then followed up by broadcasters influenced too much by newspapers. So wary are they of wielding power they hand a lot of it away to anonymous regulators only to find they still get the blame when things go wrong.

There is a problem with power in Britain. The elected politicians are not powerful enough.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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