I didn't come into politics to sort out gambling

Interview - Tessa Jowell talks to our political editor, Martin Bright, about super-casinos, the hand

Just before arriving at the Savoy Grill for our interview, Tessa Jowell sends me a text message reminding me of the words attributed to Aneurin Bevan: "Nothing is too good for the working class." Whether a cabinet minister and a Westminster journalist can really be counted as members of the proletariat, I am not so sure. So, over omelette Arnold Bennett followed by sea bream, we discuss how the party has become disconnected from the ordinary people of Britain.

"Humility in government is extraordinarily important and our greatest assets are the hopes and the fears and the ambitions of the people of this country," she says. She turns to the leadership plotting of recent weeks. "What enrages people about this kind of outbreak of self-indulgence is that it's as if we've forgotten that government, if it's properly directed, is a force for good, a force for progressive change."

And is the woman who begged Tony Blair to stay on two years ago, to the fury of Gordon Brown, now going to throw her hat into the ring for the job of deputy . . . almost certainly to Brown? One Sunday newspaper reported that she would use this interview to announce her candidature. Jowell said she would be doing no such thing.

"We have had enough discussion about that kind of thing; the most important thing is that we stop having what, for the people I represent, seems like a private, internal conversation and just concentrate on the business of government." Does that mean she is ruling it out? Not quite. "I've resolved not to say any more about it for the time being. I, like everybody else in government, have a really important job to do."

Jowell insists, however, that each contender for the deputy leadership so far is "a good person and a potentially strong candidate". As for serving under Brown, she replies crisply: "I am loyal, and I will be loyal to the next leader of the Labour Party." She admits that she is sympathetic to Harriet Harman's proposition that the next deputy should be a woman. "There are lots of talented women in the government. I'm a great friend of Harriet's.

"I don't know if other women will come forward, but I think it is a very good principle that the government should look like the rest of the country."

Jowell's chances for the number two job were severely weakened by allegations concerning the financial relationship between her husband, David Mills, a corporate lawyer, and the Italian media mogul and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. She announced her separation from Mills in March, in the midst of the furore, and is still deeply bruised by the affair.

I suggest that one of the problems ordinary people have with new Labour is its relationship with the super-rich. I add that perhaps she more than anyone has come to symbolise that culture. The usually jovial Jowell fizzes with indignation at this point, asking: "What do you think of my relationship with money?" I ask her if it was appropriate for a husband of a UK cabinet minister to be moving in those circles and whether she was happy to move in those circles. She says she has never met Berlusconi, then she calls the interview to a halt and gives me a lengthy off-the-record lecture on the media's smear campaign over "Jowellgate".

We resume. I ask for a response for the record. "I think it's completely unfair, I understand how it has arisen, but that doesn't make it fair. And I don't think anybody who knows me well would see that as being fair."

Labour's links with business, rather than being an embarrassment, are a key to its success, she says. "I entirely regret the symbolism you referred to and I assert always the importance of transparency in our dealings. Just as we should be proud of our relationship with the trade unions, so, too, we should be proud that, after years of ideological opposition to the means of wealth creation in this country, new Labour has a relationship with business. This means business has been more willing to accept the national minimum wage, time off for working parents, and so forth."

As Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jowell was given the unenviable responsibility of pushing through two of the most controversial pieces of recent government legislation: the Licensing Act 2003, which extended drinking hours, and last year's Gambling Act, which tightened regulation of online gambling and introduced new protections for children. The Gambling Act also allowed for the creation of a Las Vegas-style super-casino, which will include slot machines with huge jackpots, as yet untried in Britain. As a result of these laws, the government has been accused of encouraging binge drinking and problem gambling. Jowell says the reverse will be the case, but that, with the advent of unregulated online gambling, "it is simply not sustainable to say that we should just leave things as they are". Britain, she says, has "one of the lowest rates of problem gambling in the world". She identifies two important drivers of betting - horse racing and slot machines - but does not accept that she should refuse to allow high-jackpot machines.

Jowell insists she has not met any of the large operators (unlike John Prescott) and that "there is no question of more than one super-casino until at least a few years after the first one". But she is confident about the benefits of that very first one, the siting of which is the subject of considerable competition. "No regional casino will open unless the Gambling Commission is satisfied the operator will comply with the very high level of social responsibility expected and the local authority is satisfied with the planning gains and regeneration benefits. The local community rules."

Purpose of politics

But surely this is not what new Labour was supposed to be about, I ask her? "I come from a Methodist tradition myself. I understand about the harms that gambling can do and it is this that has driven me to see the legislation through," she replies. Then she adopts a quizzical air. "Did I come into the Labour Party to regulate the gambling industry? The answer is no. But do I feel comfortable with the legislation that has new stringent powers, arguably the most stringent in the world, to protect children and the vul nerable? Do I believe that it is consistent with the belief in promoting equality that gets me out of bed every day? Then the answer is yes. Because I do believe there is a role for government in protecting people from the pernicious effect of a free market in gambling, which we see in other parts of the world."

Jowell is also the minister responsible for dealing with the bereaved families of those killed in the terror attacks of 7 July 2005 and the survivors of the bombings. Her department is due to publish a report into the way the government and the emergency services dealt with the people affected by the attacks. "What is clear is that this is a job that is growing in importance and significance and it is one of the most sensitive and delicate jobs in government," she says. She admits that mistakes were made which "left individuals and families with a tremendous sense of grievance and anger, which has sometimes compounded their grief". Grievance and anger towards whom, I ask. "Towards, broadly, those in authority," she admits.

She points to the fact that foreign nationals hurt in the attacks will have access to compensation, while Britons killed in terror attacks abroad receive nothing. "The great grievance that people who were killed in Sharm al-Sheikh, Doha or Turkey feel is that there is no compensation scheme that covers them and we are seeking to address that. Accordingly, Jowell says she has raised the issue with the Egyptian government and is hoping to secure an international compensation agreement for terrorism victims. In a final "mea culpa", she admits ministers were unsure of how to approach the bereaved and injured after 7/7, worried they might be seen as grandstanding. "This work is a constant balancing act. We will never get it right for everybody because people have such different experiences. But we have to be prepared to take the anger and try to make sure we do better next time."

It has been a tough year for Jowell, professionally and personally - perhaps tougher than for anyone else in the cabinet. Her joy at winning the Olympic bid was overshadowed by the terrible events in London the following day. Then Jowellgate led to the separation from her husband of 27 years, whom she clearly still loves deeply.

As we leave the restaurant I ask her how she feels about the media's treatment of Mills. "He is one of the most warm, loving and kind people you are ever likely to meet. Any of his friends will tell you he is a wonderful man." Generous words for the husband whose ill-advised choice of clients has probably ended her chances of moving any further up the political ladder.