The news earlier this week that Tessa Jowell had died was desperately sad. Whilst I didn’t know her well, I worked with Tessa when she was Minister for London and Minister for the
Cabinet Office (between 2009 and 2010). At the time, I was heading up the Cabinet Office Strategic Comms team. We were still reeling from the effects of the banking crisis and although we didn’t know it at the time (but might have guessed), Gordon Brown’s premiership would soon come to an end. The London Olympics were two years away but the Games represented a beacon of hope in the midst of what was a challenging communications environment.
In this prevailing atmosphere of uncertainty, Tessa had a knack of making you feel positive, and a lot better than you did before you walked into her office. Since last weekend, I’ve been reflecting on this and trying to work out why that was. Government ministers aren’t known to empathise with civil servants but Tessa was one of the few that actually seemed to respect what we were doing and recognised us for a job done well in difficult circumstances. I must also say the same for Rosie Winterton and Francis Maude – two other Ministers with very different styles but from whom I learned a lot.
So what was Tessa’s formula? Why did we look forward to meetings with her, rather than live in fear of being called to the office? Don’t get me wrong, Tessa could be tough. She would quite rightly hold you to account but she was, in my eyes, always fair. These are the other things I remember her doing and which made her so special:
- She was genuinely interested in everyone’s point of view. She believed that the best ideas could just as easily come from the intern as the Permanent Secretary and that meant that everyone got a chance to pipe up. It also made her meetings buzzy and inclusive.
- She was fully present. When she was talking to you, she gave you her undivided attention and that meant that she remembered people and what mattered to them. Years after working with her, I bumped into Tessa at an event. She was warm and interested in what I was doing and we had a great chat about (what else?) politics.
- She was genuinely and authentically kind. Over in her office at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, there were always fresh pots of tea with coffee and biscuits. Tessa did the pouring and everyone got a biscuit! Such a small thing in the grand scheme of things but it made a huge difference.
- She not only listened but she heard you. She shared. She was genuine in her warmth.
- She stayed passionate about the things she believed in and her enthusiasm was infectious. To hear Tessa talking about her vision for the Olympics and the enormous difference she believed it would make to Londoners, as well as to the country as a whole, was inspiring.
The world is a lot worse off for Tessa not being in it. Writing these memories of her reminds me that the best tribute I can pay to her will be in trying to live up to her extraordinary qualities.