Charlie Whelan: Labour must starve story to save Jowell

The Tessa Jowell ‘scandal’ is what we in the trade call a slow burner. For months, tales of her husband David Mills’ financial dealings with Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi have been confined to a few paragraphs on the inside pages of newspapers hostile to Labour.

Last weekend all that changed because, for the first time, the minister could be linked to the scandal, via her signature on a mortgage document.

There are few precedents of a top politician being damaged by a scandal involving a spouse. Whatever, say, Dennis Thatcher got up to was largely ignored by the media. It is usually a politician's own hubris that brings them down.

So until now the media have treated the problem as Mills' own, not Jowell's. As I write, The Guardian continues to take this view, relegating this week's allegations by The Sunday Times – that Berlusconi's money was used to pay off the couple's mortgage – to a side-bar story on page six. Other Labour supporting papers, such as The Times and the Daily Mirror, have given only slightly more coverage. The Daily Mail, inevitably, 'splashed' on the story.

From a spin doctor's point of view the priority is to keep a bad story away from the broadcasters. To this end Jowell did herself no favours by stopping outside her house to say, on camera, that she had done no wrong. Until then, BBC TV was probably thinking hard about whether to run the story.

Jowell's soundbite may just have convinced them – and it has been a growing story this week.

Another way to kill a story is to take advantage of whatever else is happening in the world. Fortunately for Jowell, the weekend
story coincided with the £50m cash depot robbery in Tonbridge and George Michael's arrest for alleged cannabis possession.

But much like a joint, the Jowell scandal continues its slow burn.

Whether or not she is off the hook depends on what else is discovered over the next week or so. It also depends on how the Culture Secretary and the Government handle the problem. By now Number 10 will have taken over all the media decision making, and you can bet your life that Alastair Campbell will be involved too. They will be doing everything they can to avoid 'feeding' the story, taking Jowell out of potentially difficult situations.

This one will get particular attention as Jowell is one of the few Blairites left in the Cabinet and the only minister I know who would throw herself in front of a bus to save Tony Blair. The PM will of course give his full support. It remains to be seen whether the rope he throws is a lifeline or a noose.

charlie.whelan@haynet.com

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