Leading article: Still caught in the Italian connection

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The Independent Online

The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, has cleared Tessa Jowell of breaching the ministerial code of conduct. His findings, endorsed by the Prime Minister, were that the Culture Secretary knew nothing about the money her husband had received as a gift and could not therefore have declared it. When she did learn of it, four years after it had been used to pay off a mortgage in their joint names, the money had been reclassified as "earnings"; tax had been paid, and there was no obligation on her to report it.

Aside from reminding ministers in general of their obligations under the code - clearly no bad thing - Sir Gus's one semi-criticism of Ms Jowell sounds more like an intrusion into private grief than a statement on government ethics. The Culture Secretary, he said, accepted that her husband should have told her about the money. The Prime Minister might well have felt the same way about his wife and her apparently solo purchase of those Bristol flats. Yesterday, he expressed his full confidence in Ms Jowell, whom he described as "an excellent minister".

Quite properly, all involved in this investigation did their utmost to distinguish between the conduct and responsibilities of Ms Jowell as a minister and the convoluted business affairs of her lawyer husband, David Mills, which included work for the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The clear intention was to show, as a point of principle, that the sins of a husband should not be visited on his wife.

How far this will be possible in practice from now on, however, is another matter. It is already apparent that, while Ms Jowell may be punctilious in keeping her own affairs separate her affairs from those of her husband, he - and others - have been less careful. Thus it was revealed yesterday that he had cited her position and influence with the Prime Minister in support of an application for a lawyer's licence in Dubai. And, while disclosure of the Italian investigation to the Italian embassy in London might have been protocol at the time, it was clearly unhelpful to the Italian investigators - and helpful to the household of Mr Mills and Ms Jowell.

Exonerated essentially for being insufficiently curious about the family finances, Ms Jowell may be able to tough it out. But she would be wiser not to. Already, insinuations are being made about London's successful bid for the 2012 Olympics - Ms Jowell was the minister responsible. And it may not be possible to keep the Blairs' friendship with the Berlusconis, and their holiday at the Sardinia villa, out of the equation forever. As the Italian investigation into Mr Mills continues, the extent of the damage could be hard to predict, and even harder to limit.

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