Leading article: Ministers and their responsibilities

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The Independent Online

Stage management has long been one of this Government's strengths. But the efforts made yesterday on behalf of the beleaguered Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, must count among the most elaborate and - in the short term at least - the most successful.

From early morning, the Government fielded a succession of women MPs to profess their sympathy and support for Ms Jowell in her marital and professional difficulties. By mid-morning, the Prime Minister had expressed his view that Ms Jowell was doing an excellent job and should be allowed to carry on doing it. Then Ms Jowell appeared in person to answer departmental questions before a packed House of Commons; packed, it soon seemed, in every way. The questions could be classified as either friendly or technical. Cocooned in warm collegiality, she put in a competent, if sometimes hesitant performance.

The conclusion must be that she intends to remain in office, and the Prime Minister has given his blessing. The separation from her husband has had the effect - by tragic coincidence or cynical design - of separating her from his business affairs and whatever new allegations the Italian prosecutors come up with. From now on, she can be called to account only for her conduct as Ms Jowell, not for what she might or might not have been aware of as Mrs David Mills.

The separation makes things simpler; one way or another, it may yet save her ministerial career. Whether it should insulate her retrospectively from the consequences of financial arrangements to which she was party as Mrs Mills at a time when she was also Culture Secretary, however, is a different matter.

Probity in government means not just probity, but the appearance of probity. This is what we thought Mr Blair intended to deliver when he came to office vowing that his government would be "whiter than white". The heated conversations that the affair has prompted - on the street, on phone-ins and on internet discussion sites - show that this is what very many people in this country expected too.

Instead, what we have is at best a rather indeterminate shade of grey, and the all-too-predictable accusations that everything - from revelations about Mr Mills's banking arrangements to the separation - is the fault of the malevolent and irresponsible media. Where some see divine conspiracy, however, we see only a healthy investigative instinct concerned about ethical standards in government.

The Jowell-Mills separation may mean that there will be not even the appearance of ministerial conflict of interest in the future. It remains to be shown beyond all doubt, however, that there was no such conflict of interest in the past.

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