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13 March 2006

Tessa’s friends

The Culture Secretary threw herself into the glamorous parties that come with the job. Perhaps she c

By Rosie Millard

Well, it’s the sort of job you’d want to hang on to, isn’t it? The Culture Secretary’s beat, if you can reach for such a proletarian noun, is a never-ending rainbow of red carpets, air kisses, Lottery handouts, doughty orchestras, glamorous novelists, grateful award-winners, and so on. And that’s before you add the Oscars, the Cannes Film Festival and Edinburgh into the Choo-shod mix. When David Mellor had his five (swift) months in the post, the department was openly dubbed the Ministry of Fun. It now has a rather important set of initials, but the sentiments behind it are very much the same. Tessa Jowell presides over a ministry that never really has a genuinely, hideously bad day. Working at the DCMS is akin to taking a rather long, warm, political bath. In Choos.

For example, if ever they were to find themselves on a rare trip to Liverpool, most government ministers would be contemplating a Unison picket line, a conversation with a criminal or, if they’re Boris Johnson, a humiliating round of grovelling. Not so la Jowell. When she went to announce that it would be City of Culture 2008, she was greeted at Lime Street by a brass band on horseback, a hundred singing schoolchildren, and people weeping for joy at the very sight of her classy haircut.

Perhaps the trouble is that her ministerial world is a bit too glittering for comfort. If every dinner is a Booker Prize, every film a Woody Allen premiere and every meeting with ordinary folks a chance to tell them that they have just landed X thousand pounds a year from the public purse, everything begins to look rose-tinted. This might explain the thorny issue of that £408,000 mortgage. If life is amply scattered with freebies, goody bags and introductions to loaded A-listers such as Jude Law, getting your head around dull things like remortgaging your house might seem a bit out of step.

Equally, if you are dealing with the labyrinthine and bizarre funding of what we laughably call the British Film Industry, the labyrinthine and bizarre funding of your husband’s industry might seem rather normal by comparison. And if your chats with the Prime Minister are not about issues of life and death but whether it should be the Halle or the Liverpool Phil that gets the bumper deal this year, then even the hard stuff will start to look a bit like the soft stuff. (This is not to say that orchestras should not get public subsidy; it’s just that their needs are not as vital as those of secondary schools.) Flinging money around is part of life at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and even more so since the advent of the Lottery. If you don’t believe me, I offer you two words to ponder on: Covent and Garden.

Tessa Jowell is meticulously decent to everyone, but then, because everyone likes her, this is not too difficult. So is she actually able to stomach having a nasty conversation with anyone? That anyone might include David Mills. All right, there is the odd office irritation such as the unfinished Wembley Stadium, but such flies in the ointment are easily teased out and put on a handy shelf labelled “problems with contractors”. No one expects anyone at the DCMS to be any good with concrete mixers. Then it’s back to the delightful day job, namely giving relatively small amounts of money, via the Arts Council, the National Lottery or any number of other organs, to arts companies that will bless you with every production of Guys and Dolls or The Caucasian Chalk Circle or for the “site-specific art” they can now create thanks to your largesse.

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Not everyone can do beneficence with grace. There is no doubt that Jowell has been rather a star in this role; she isn’t someone whose mind is so lofty that it can’t get excited about the Olympic Village, nor whose ego is so vast that it would be insulted by the idea of running a department which features so briefly in the Chancellor’s mind that it hardly gets a mention on Budget Day.

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She also has a great smile. This is crucial, because when you are Culture Secretary, you need to look like a happy luvvy, not most of the time, but all the time. Chris Smith, who has a thousand-watt beam, knew this, but Stephen Dorrell, whom you may recall held the role for a year in the Nineties, didn’t get the point. Indeed, his only notable moment in office was when he called the French screen goddess Jeanne Moreau a man. At Cannes, naturally.

No, Tessa Jowell took to the role like the culture diva that she is, and was very nice about it, too. Once, following one of my public whippings at the BBC, she gave me a huge hug in her office and suggested we have a cup of tea. I nearly wept all over the gorgeous dung-encrusted Chris Ofilis that adorn her walls. Being touchy-feely at the DCMS isn’t wrong: it’s very right, and possibly unique to Westminster, which may explain the level of support Jowell has enjoyed from the Labour “sisterhood”. Why get rid of the only nice person in the village?