Tessa Jowell obituary: the ‘people politician’

Tessa Jowell photographed at Portcullis House

Until the revelation of her brain tumour last September, Tessa Jowell, Lady Jowell, the former secretary of state for culture, media and sport, who has died aged 70, was best known outside Westminster as the minister for the Olympics in the run-up to the hugely successful London games in 2012. It was directly as a result of her enthusiasm and personal pressure on the then prime minister, Tony Blair, that the UK first mounted its bid and then subsequently won the competition to stage the event. As an MP in the House of Commons, Jowell was best known as the unfailing cheerleader for Blair’s leadership of New Labour: “The ultimate sensible loyalist”, as he described her in his memoirs.

After the unexpected death of John Smith in May 1994, Jowell was one of the first Labour MPs to assert Blair’s claim to inherit the Labour leadership. Her steadfast support thereafter was rewarded with her uninterrupted tenure of a seat on the party’s frontbench for the next 18 years. “She is a great person, Tessa, just a gem,” wrote Blair. “She represents the best of political loyalty, which at its best isn’t blind, but thoroughly considered.” She nonetheless spoke her mind to the prime minister, notably over the Olympics. She upbraided him for having doubts about making a bid: “Of course we may not win,” she told him, “but at least we will have had the courage to try.” She was also one of those close to him who persuaded him not to stand down in 2004. Although she later tried to deny it, Jowell did once say of Blair in an interview: “I would jump in front of a bus to save him.”

Tessa Jowell with Tony Blair in 2005
Tessa Jowell with Tony Blair in 2005. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/PA

Jowell had been elected to the Commons as MP for Dulwich (later Dulwich and West Norwood), in 1992, only two years before Blair’s election as leader, but she had previously acquired 15 years of political expertise as a Labour councillor. She had also made a number of important social and political connections, moving as she did in a circle of increasingly influential Labour supporters, many of whom shared her belief in the need for a party shakeup. It was this emphasis on a new-look, modern Labour party that coalesced around Blair’s bid for the leadership and Jowell, who knew how to handle the media as well as the woman in the street, was in the vanguard.

Blair recognised both her competence and the useful potential of her likeable personality. She exuded cheerfulness and gave even those she had only just met the sense of being one of her old friends. In consequence, in the course of her career she was handed some of the most testing social policy briefs in government, including dealing with broadcasting policy, licensing hours, gambling laws, equality legislation, tobacco advertising, the nation’s diet and the Queen’s golden jubilee.

Her reputation as a “people politician” with the common touch led to her being given ministerial responsibility for helping the families of British victims of the 2001 attacks on the New York World Trade Center and in 2005 for those caught up in the July terrorist attacks on the London transport system.

Her apparent straightforwardness – which disguised a sharp respect for political pragmatism – her genuine commitment to social justice and, above all, her demonstrated reliability to stick to the New Labour message in all circumstances, guaranteed her swift early promotion. She became known in the media, partly because of her government responsibilities for a range of domestic issues, as New Labour’s very own nanny. Unusually, in 1996 she had been confirmed as an adult into the Church of England. Her close friendships led her to become a godmother to one of Alastair Campbell and Fiona Millar’s children and for Peter Mandelson to be godfather to one of hers.

Tessa Jowell holds her Dame Commander insignia after it was presented to her by the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace in 2013
Tessa Jowell holds her Dame Commander insignia after it was presented to her by the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace in 2013. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

She did not escape controversy, but it didn’t…

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