So what does Stephen Dorrell do?

He may not know much about art, but he likes what he knows. Peter Guttridge shadows the Heritage minister
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The Independent Culture
Thursday lunch-time, a private dining-room next to the kitchens of a so-so Soho caf bar. Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for National Heritage, is talking about the bright technological future for broadcasting above the noise of clattering crockery.

Running late, the man anointed by John Major to be the next Tory prime minister has foregone his pudding to give a speech. Not so most of the 25 members of the Broadcasting Press Guild, squashed with him around a single table. His speech is punctuated by the scraping of spoons in pudding bowls. When he has finished, they put away their spoons and bring out their knives.

The former Treasury man has talked in abstract terms about allowing broadcasting technology to develop while preserving a quality product and safeguarding our cultural identity. When questions are invited, the broadcast journalists want to know why he doesn't watch more telly. Or plays, or films, or opera.

The National Heritage portfolio includes arts, museums, libraries, the media and the National Lottery. What was once the Ministry of Fun has been dubbed by the Sun the Department of Nothing Happening. The Prime Minister put Dorrel, a bright Loughborough MP who entered Parliament in 1979 aged 26, in charge - apparently to give him experience of running a big department and as an opportunity for non-contentious high-profile appearances.

But since he took office last July, Dorrell has been ridiculed for his ignorance of culture. The man expected to revitalise the British film industry has admitted he can't remember the last film he saw. Fellow Tory MP Sir John Gorst expressed the common misgiving about him: "There's a feeling you're a gamekeeper from the Treasury who has remained a gamekeeper. There are doubts about your commitment and enthusiasm. Rather than go into the division lobby every night, you should say, `I'm sorry, I'm at a first night, at the business end of my portfolio'."

So now his lunch companions start on to him about "consuming the product". What was the last television programme he saw? Dorrell - pleasant, articulate, thoughtful and, everyone agrees, a very nice man - won't say (though whatever it was, he adds, it was last Sunday).

"I can either be an active minister or an active consumer," he says, trying to move along. "What's the value of talking about my personal tastes? About my enthusiasm for Elgar and how I react to his music?" (Likes Elgar, journalists duly note.)

He is pressed. Slightly impatient, he admits the programme he watched was The Buccaneers. He makes his escape at 2.45pm, a tall, slightly gangly figure, sartorially an M & S man in a Soho full of designer clothes.

We enter his ministerial car - he sits in the front for the leg-room though he still looks cramped - and there is now the opportunity to ask the important questions. But he won't say what he thought of the Edith Wharton adaptation.

As his car heads for the National Heritage offices just off Trafalgar Square he attempts once more to wrestle with the big one: "I'd like to see more. But frankly there are only 24 hours in the day." When he first came to office he presented himself humbly: "I think any minister is well- advised to remember he is a layman: when I was at Health it was not necessary to be a doctor and I am glad to say, as an ex-Treasury minister, that I have never attended an economics lecture in my life."

His next meeting is a private one. According to the visitor's book, it's with Lord Wakeham, the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. There's much to discuss: the privacy White Paper which probably isn't going to happen and Lord Wakeham's controversial wish to appoint to the commission Sir Bernard Ingham.

This morning Dorrell was in Cabinet committee, then in Cabinet, then he spent half an hour preparing the three speeches he is giving today. "That's quite a heavy day," he says. "Three public appearances which are more than just pleasantries."

As if to refute those who accuse him of philistinism, he has had a week of culture. Official visits to the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Opera House and the British Museum. Sharing a joke with the ubiquitous Hugh Grant at the launch of the second London Arts Season. An after-dinner speech to the Society of London Theatres. Attendance at the relaunch of the Business Sponsorship Incentive Scheme (now to be known as the Pairing Scheme). How arty can you get? Unless, heaven forbid, these were his first arts engagements since he took office...

It's easy to be sarcastic, but Dorrell, who in the Eighties ran his family's clothing company (six factories and a multi-million pound turnover), shouldn't be underestimated. The London Evening Standard once said of him that he was so far to the left of the Conservative Party he was in danger of falling off. Yet he is firmly in favour of privatisation and opponents fear that he is out to privatise the arts.

Tourism is Dorrell's big thing, and it's through tourism that he sees culture functioning in the future. "Tourism is in National Heritage and not Trade and Industry because it's an economic opportunity for culture," he tells me. "If it is my job to make the heritage sector grow - and I think it is - then tourismis a large part of the answer to the question, Where will the resources come from?"

At tea-time there is to be a perfect match of two of his department's responsibilities when Dorrell uses the latest broadcasting technology to deliver a speech promoting tourism from the basement of the National Heritage offices to a lunch in New York. The occasion is the launch of a British Tourist Authority video and Dorrell, speaking on autocue, will be linked live by satellite.

Whoops. It doesn't happen. The satellite link fails and the lunch goes on without him. So he arrives a little early at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce, where he's presenting the Art for Architecture awards.

The occasion is essentially M & S man among the bow ties. For a man who only has 24 hours in his day, it must be galling to have to sit through four other speeches before he gets his turn. Especially when the others say all there is to say about the winning scheme, which is based around the largely Victorian Wakefield Cathedral. One even quotes Dorrell himself at length.

Still, he has a go. He refers to himself again by the dread word "layman" - a claim that after eight months in office should be wearing a bit thin. He expresses a few platitudes about the winning scheme, inadvertently referring to the cathedral as Victorian rather than "largely Victorian".

In such innocuous ways can he demonstrate, in the eyes of the arts lite, his lack of suitability for his job. As he heads off with a small entourage to make a speech at the Tower of London launch of the video, I overhear two bow ties talking. One indicates the representation of the Cathedral on the cover of the Award programme. "Did you hear the Secretary of State say it was a Victorian cathedral? Look at that tower. It's much older." He fingers his bow tie and sneers: "Still, what do you expect?"

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