Cash Cow: The Tessa Jowell Affair
3 March 2006
The bribery allegations levelled at Tessa Jowell's husband are both intricate and tedious, involving, as they do, the dreary world of finance. In fact, the whole business makes you nostalgic for the easy-to-understand scandals surrounding honest-to-goodness perverts like Harvey Proctor. No boring old hedge funds or mortgage payments there - just rent boys and a statuette of Winston Churchill rammed firmly up your arse.
Mark Oaten, we salute you.
That said, the whole Jowell affair speaks volumes about the world that politicians inhabit, and as such we really ought to take an interest in it. To make it as simple and painless as possible, what happened was this:
Culture secretary Tessa Jowell's husband, David Mills, was accused of taking a £344,000 bribe from Italy's weaselly prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Specifically, Italian officials say corporate lawyer Mills was paid to give false testimony in court for Berlusconi, who was facing a corruption 'probe' in 1997 - something that must be a fixture of daily life in the Berlusconi household: 'I'm just popping out for a corruption probe, dear. Do you want anything from the shops on the way back?'
Naturally, Mills denies this was a bribe, instead referring to it as a 'gift'. Tessa Jowell became embroiled in the saga when it emerged that a £408,000 loan secured on a house the couple jointly own (note: 'a' house, i.e. there's more than one) was paid off with the Italian cash. Jowell has categorically denied this.
Thus far the tale is pretty dodgy, but to complicate matters further the parliamentary rules covering gifts to ministers state that they 'are advised to provide their permanent secretary with a full list in writing of all interests which might be thought to give rise to a conflict' - and that covers spouses and partners. There isn't any suggestion of a conflict of interest thus far, although if we discover that Berlusconi has bought the BBC for £1 that may not be the case.
Meanwhile Tony Blair has given his support to Jowell, saying she hasn't breached the code of conduct because her husband did not tell her about the £344,000 gift. Happily for Blair, such support need not extend to David Mills himself.
And that, roughly, is it. So far. The latest chapter in the story
is that documents have been found that suggest Mills used Jowell's cabinet position and friendship with Tony Blair to try to avert an investigation into his business affairs by the authorities in Dubai. It's hardly the subject of animated debate in pubs up and down the country, but the story looks set to run and run - particularly if Mills is prosecuted by the Italian authorities.
The big question is whether any impropriety has occurred. To quote Kent Brockman, only time will tell. However, there's more than a hint that something strange has been going on. As Mills himself put it: 'I told no lies, but I turned some very tricky corners, to put it mildly.' What the fucking hell does that mean? And surely, as a corporate lawyer who charges by the hour, there should be some documentation of what the money was paid to him *for*?
Mills' case isn't helped by the fact that he is an oleaginous creep who looks as though he could pass through any semi-porous material. His personal demeanour appears to have been borrowed from Dr Evil, and he has a condescending manner that practically shrieks 'I'm rich and I went to a very expensive school. Now clear orf or I'll let the dogs out!'
Whatever happens, Jowell herself seems fairly well insulated from scandal because she didn't know about the money. But how the hell could you not notice a third of a million pounds popping up in your personal finances?
'David, where did this £344,000 come from?'
'Er, I sold a few of the kids' old toys.'
And stepping back from the intricacies of the affair, you have wonder how anyone can reasonably consider £344,000 a 'gift'. Come Christmas, see what presents you get - socks, toiletries, maybe an X-Box 360 if you're really lucky. It's unlikely that you'll find £344,000 under the tree.
Stepping back even further, what's disturbing is that it's yet more evidence of the strange world of incessant nest-feathering and freebies that the great and the good seem to live in. Old Labour good egg Peter Kilfoyle, himself a former minister, said the Jowell allegations were 'the very kind of things that we excoriated the Tories for in the 1990s. I think it damages government and it damages politics.'
Precisely. And it's hardly the first time New Labour cronies have been 'linked' with dodgy financial dealings. There was Mandelson's mortgage application and Cherie Blair's purchase of a flat in Bristol (not to mention her lucrative lecture tours). Then there was tax-dodging Lord Levy and of course Tony and Cherie's well-publicised free holidays, which have included staying in Cliff Richard's house and another belonging to... Silvio Berlusconi.
Of course, it would be foolish to imagine that senior politicians *don't* make a lot of money and get some nice perks. They're successful, they're famous, they work hard, blah di blah. But the world of the New Labour leadership has a dreadful snout-in-trough air to it. You expected this sort of thing from the Tories, but one of the reasons Labour is in power is precisely because people were sick of the legions of sleazy Tory backbenchers lining their pockets in the years running up to 1997.
Call us naÔve, but we had this silly idea that politics should be about some form of idealism - improving stuff, making people's lives better, and all that sort of thing. Surely that should be some sort of reward in itself? (And the fact remains that politicians *are* well-paid, perhaps not compared with rock stars or blue chip company directors, but certainly in comparison with the general population.)
Instead we see politician after politician behaving like the sort of junket junkies that infest most companies - you know the sort: people who are obsessed with petrol allowances and free lunches. However, the world of politicians operates at a much higher level than scamming a few quid on expenses. In this world of super-rich chums, there appears to be a lot of money to be made by the shrewd operator who knows how to wield influence and useful 'connections' without actually breaking the law or parliamentary rules.
And there surely must be a connection between crap policies and this avaricious self-interest. It's not the same as straightforward bribery, but if politicians constantly have one eye on the next freebie or nice little earner, is it any wonder that what emanates from government is shoddy, ill thought-out legislation? After all, wasn't it Tony Blair who went on holiday to the West Indies (to Cliff Richardís holiday home) the day after his lousy anti-terror legislation was announced?