Tessa Jowell’s decency and compassion were no barriers to her holding high office. But those qualities shouldn’t be confused with weakness, writes Robert Philpot of his friend and former boss
It may sound a somewhat unsophisticated judgement but Tessa Jowell’s success as a politician stemmed from a simple fact: she liked people, and they liked her in return.
Tessa was canny and skilled at the art of politics – very few other people served on the frontbench for the entire time of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments – and she had an acute political antennae.
But her career is also testament to the fact that decency and civility are not barriers to reaching high office.
For Tessa, loyalty was the supreme virtue in politics and disloyalty a cardinal sin. From that much else flowed. She told all of her new special advisers that she had two rules for those who worked for her: you never lie to me and you do not brief against my colleagues to the media. Any messages she had for other ministers were communicated to their faces, not through the newspaper columns.
In the two years I worked for her, I never remember seeing her raise her voice or act in any way that was discourteous or rude. She took an interest in her staff. She knew the names of partners and children, where they were going on holiday and what was going on in their lives outside the office. Simple politenesses that are not always evident in the relationship between politicians and those who work for them were respected.
Tessa’s way of working bred a culture where buckpassing and backbiting were rare, and kindness and consideration for others was encouraged.
However, it would be a mistake to confuse any of this with weakness. Tessa was steely and determined. She could signal disapproval (usually expressed as disappointment) and she had a sixth sense for when she was being spun a line or offered something half-baked. ‘Never tell her something you’re not sure about,’ a former special adviser warned me before I went to work for her. ‘She’ll spot it instantly and ask you a 1,000 follow up questions.’
In fact, if it caught her interest (and lots of things did), even telling her in a throwaway manner a fact, statistic or quote that you were sure about could also produce a 1,000 follow-up questions. This, though, was all part of the blend of curiosity and enthusiasm with which she approached her work and set you about yours.
Tessa hated the inaccessible language and insider talk too often deployed within the Westminster bubble and would ruthlessly edit out any sign of it from speeches or articles. If a phrase particularly offended her, she would say: ‘I’m adding that to my Little Book of Bollocks, which I shall be publishing in my retirement.’
At the same time, Tessa did not fake a distaste for ideas and intellectuals or deride ‘wonks’ in the manner that some politicians do. She liked talking with academics and those who work for think tanks. She was ever-sensitive, however, to the practical application of policy: what would this mean in her constituency and to those who came to her advice surgery?
Tessa was tribally Labour but she regarded those across the floor of the House of Commons, and later Lords, as political opponents, not enemies. In government, she viewed the Olympics as something that belonged to the whole country, not the Labour party, and she fiercely fought off any attempts to politicise it.
I only remember one occasion when I worked for her when Tessa’s unfailing politeness slipped, and it was a telling one. She asked to see a journalist who had been writing endless stories about migrant workers at the Olympic Park. Tessa had been around long enough that she was pretty immune to media criticism of her own performance, but she was genuinely offended by the anti-immigrant undertone which underlay these pieces. I think the journalist thought he was being invited in for a cosy, off-the-record chat. It turned out to be anything but.
Tessa’s interest in people had one draw back. By the time she had returned a call from a journalist, talked to a colleague in the voting lobby or chatted to some schoolchildren who had an endless stream of questions about the Olympics, she was invariably running late. Sometimes very late.
I think she was genuinely unaware of this, but her civil servants were not. The diary was referred to as running on ‘Tessa time’; I always thought of it as a form of mid-Atlantic time-zone about an hour or so behind GMT.
Like Tessa, it was unique.
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress and former special advisor to Tessa Jowell. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot
Photo: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2009
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