Labour politician who played pivotal role in bringing the Olympics to London

Born: September 17, 1947;

Died: May 12, 2018

DAME Tessa Jowell, who has died aged 70, was a Labour politician and long-serving Cabinet minister who was pivotal in securing the Olympics for London in 2012. Though a fiercely loyal member of Tony Blair’s cabinet, she was never a tribal politician, and commanded affection and respect across the House of Commons for her warmth, sincerity and calm resolve.

Her strength of character was very much in evidence after her diagnosis in May 2017 with a brain tumour, to which she responded with characteristic drive and determination, campaigning for NHS brain cancer patients to be given more treatment options. She received a minute-long standing ovation in the House of Lords in January after giving a speech about her experience of cancer.

Tessa Jane Helen Douglas Palmer was born in Middlesex, the first of three children of Rosemary Palmer (nee Douglas), a radiographer, and her husband Dr Kenneth Palmer.

READ MORE: Dame Tessa Jowell dies aged 70 after battling brain tumour

The family moved to Aberdeen in the early 1950s after Kenneth Palmer got a job at the university medical school. Though the move was meant to be temporary, in the event they stayed, Dr Palmer becoming a chest consultant at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. His daughter was educated at St Margaret’s School for Girls and initially harboured ambitions to be a doctor, but fell in love with history, English and botany, once remarking that aged 15 she could classify every wildflower in Aberdeenshire. At 17, she went to Aberdeen University to study arts, sociology and psychology, leaving after three years for Edinburgh University, where she gained an MA in social administration.

Her first job was in Craigmillar, Edinburgh, helping underprivileged families, an experience that helped her settle on social work as a career. She then moved to London, where in 1969 she became a childcare officer in Lambeth before training in psychiatric social work at Goldsmith’s College. She worked at the Maudsley Hospital and then in 1974 became assistant director of the mental health charity MIND, a position she held for 12 years.

Eschewing her Tory-voting background, she joined Labour in 1969, winning a seat on Camden Council two years later. Tessa Jowell was from the outset a Labour moderate, opposed to the hard left. She stood for the Ilford North parliamentary seat in a 1978 by-election, and again in the 1979 general election, but lost both times.

Tessa Palmer got married in 1970 to fellow councillor Roger Jowell, a social statistician, but she left him for another council colleague, the lawyer David Mills. Ms Jowell married Mills in 1979 and had two children, Jessie and Matthew. Ms Jowell also became stepmother to Mills’ three children from his first marriage.

READ MORE: Peers gave Dame Tessa Jowell unprecedented standing ovation for powerful speech

Ms Jowell worked in community care in Birmingham and at the Rowntree Foundation in the late 1980s, but in 1992, finally realised her ambition to become an MP, winning Dulwich and West Norwood. Her moderate, centrist tendencies appealed to Tony Blair who made her spokeswoman for women and public health, as well as a whip. Once in government, the ambitious new MP immediately became a junior minister, first for Public Health, and then Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities. She was especially proud as public health minister of implementing the Surestart programme to help disadvantaged mothers and their babies.

She was often viewed as the epitome of a Blairite minister – loyal, pragmatic, well-connected and at ease with wealth and the wealthy, but driven by progressive ideals. Her warm manner was such that she was often deployed in TV studios to deliver the government’s message.

Ms Jowell was known among colleagues for her extraordinary gift for getting along with people. She had a wide range of loyal friends, and partly as a consequence, one of the most impressive contacts lists in Whitehall.

At Public Health, while responsible for smoking policy, she became embroiled in New Labour’s first big controversy when Tony Blair decided he wanted an exemption for Formula 1 racing from the ban on tobacco sponsorship in sport. Ms Jowell had argued forcefully against it.

In 2006, Ms Jowell and her husband separated after it emerged that Mr Mills, a tax lawyer for former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, used £350,000 to pay off part of the couple’s mortgage – money at the centre of a corruption case against Berlusconi. Tony Blair cleared his minister of wrongdoing, but Ms Jowell and Mr Mills lived apart for several years before patching up their differences.

Tessa Jowell was elevated to the Cabinet in 2001 as minister for Culture, Media and Sport. Her most outstanding achievement was bringing the Olympics to the UK.

When she first decided to champion the idea, many of her own civil servants were against it, chastened by expensive infrastructure fiascos like the Millennium Dome. There was initially no backing in Cabinet, but through determination and doggedness, she turned that around and Tony Blair became an enthusiastic champion.

Other significant changes during her time in office included the establishment of media regulator Ofcom and the replacement of the BBC Board of Governors with a BBC Trust.

Although her tenure as culture minister ended in 2007 under Gordon Brown, Ms Jowell held onto her Olympics portfolio and was made minister for London (Brown later returned her to Cabinet as minister for the Cabinet Office). Even under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, she remained closely associated with the preparations for 2012, becoming shadow minister for the Olympics. She was on the Olympics organising committee and was also deputy mayor of the Olympic village, living there during the three-week event and helping ensure everything ran smoothly. The same year, she was made a Dame Commander, and three years later, a life peer.

In what spare time she had, Dame Tessa loved walking, particularly in the Cotswolds, and was confirmed in the Church of England in 1996.

READ MORE: Friends and colleagues hail ‘inspirational’ Dame Tessa Jowell

Tessa Jowell was intensely family-focused. When her teenage son’s girlfriend Amelia Ward died in an accident in 2001, she cancelled all ministerial engagements to support him and the Ward family. She worked hard to maintain a work-life balance and spoke movingly of the sustaining love of her family after her cancer diagnosis.

She became a grandmother for the first time in 2017, aged 69, when her musician daughter Jess gave birth to a daughter.

Dame Tessa Jowell is survived by her husband, son, daughter, granddaughter and stepchildren.