Leading article: Truly, a political morality tale for our times

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Tessa Jowell was right about one thing. She could not have kept both her job and her husband. Whether in leaving her husband she made the right choice is a matter for her and her alone, although almost everybody in the country will have an opinion on the matter. This is an extraordinary, and unavoidably personal, drama.

It turns out that the Prime Minister's statement last Thursday was merely a holding operation. In it, Tony Blair pointedly relied on the "assurance" from his Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport that she had not known at the time that a £350,000 payment to her husband, David Mills, might have been a gift. Thus Mr Blair said that she had not broken the Ministerial Code.

However, the Prime Minister also said he was "not in a position" to say whether the money in question was a bribe from Silvio Berlusconi, because he was waiting for the verdict of the Italian courts. That fending-off could not be sustained for long - and certainly not for as long as the Italian proceedings might take. As Mr Mills himself admitted to The Independent on Sunday two weeks ago, the documents before the Italian courts are "quite difficult to explain".

That is to take the art of understatement to a new level. It has so far proved impossible for Mr Mills to provide a credible innocent explanation for a letter he wrote to his accountants saying he had "turned some very tricky corners" to keep "Mr B out of a great deal of trouble". Indeed, Mr Mills at one point confessed to the Italian prosecutors that Mr Berlusconi had "decided to assign a sum of money to me as a debt of gratitude", only to retract it again. Of course, Mr Mills is innocent until proven guilty, but the case he has to answer is so strong that Ms Jowell could not have continued as a minister while such suspicion hung over her family finances.

Nor can she be sure that, even by making the ultimate personal sacrifice, she has made her job secure. Mr Blair's judgement that she had not breached the Ministerial Code relied on the narrowest possible interpretation of the rules. She does not seem to have observed the spirit of the rules in ensuring that "systemic steps are taken to avoid the danger of an actual or perceived conflict of interest" with her personal interests and those of her spouse. This is not a journalistic distortion or intrusion. The Ministerial Code is not some pettifogging bureaucratic burden. It is a fundamental democratic safeguard to ensure the probity of our politics - as David Blunkett ruefully acknowledged when he had the grace to congratulate Francis Elliott, our Whitehall Editor, for asking the right question about his failure to observe the rules on taking a directorship.

Nor is the Jowell-Mills story one of a media obsession with personality over issues: it is one in which the personal and the political are inextricably bound together. If legitimate questions about Ms Jowell's private interests have caused tensions in her marriage, the fault does not lie with the press. Ms Jowell's lack of curiosity about the family finances has been much commented on. Normally it would be nobody's business. Yesterday Sir Alan Sugar's wife told the world that her husband had not told her that he had bought a football club. But Lady Sugar is not a minister, accountable to the public.

Nor is this an issue of class politics. There is an element of Labour Party opinion that dislikes Ms Jowell and her husband because they seem to have a lot of money (although it is not at all clear how much). The lexicon of hedge funds, tax avoidance and shell companies does not help to give the impression that Ms Jowell is fully in touch with the concerns of her harder-pressed constituents in south London. But that is a distraction. It is not the quantity of money that is the issue, but the probity and transparency with which it is handled.

If it emerges that Ms Jowell did know or should have known that some of her husband's sources of money could have compromised her, she may still have to go. It would be a bitter and possibly rather operatic conclusion to the story: forced to choose between marriage and career, the protagonist ends up losing both. Truly, this is a political morality tale for our times.

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