Briefing: Column One: Triple whammy that left minister reeling

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The Independent Online
Chris Smith is one of Labour's most genial ministers, affable, a believer in open government and a true aesthete. Not only did he go to the opera before he was obliged to as the party's culture spokesman; he lists his favourite bedtime reading as Wordsworth's The Prelude: 1805 edition. This is a precise politician. Hand Chris a copy of the 1807 edition for Christmas and he'll throw it straight back at you.

He is a supporter of open government, opera and literature - three commendable passions - and this week they've all come back to haunt him. The Culture Secretary's "bad week" started to go wrong on Monday when he came up with what seemed a radical decision to put London's two opera companies under one roof and remove the power of the ill-fated Royal Opera House management. But his passion for this one got the better of him and he made what was officially a proposal, sound too much like a decision.

The English National Opera, where he has often sat in the stalls, denounced his plan. It would destroy their identity and harm young British singers.

At the House of Commons Culture Select Committee the next day, he was duly grilled on his presumption in deciding a course of action before setting up a review committee to explore it. He eloquently made it clear that of course it was a proposal. He most certainly would not preempt the review committee he had set up, chaired by the former National Theatre director Sir Richard Eyre. (A bad week for one arts man is usually balanced by a good week for another. As Mr Smith's on stage utterances were condemned, so Sir Richard with a non speaking part in the wings had become St Richard by the end of the week).

All should have been well after Mr Smith's assured performance before a packed select committee. Alas, one person who was not there to take notes was his own junior minister, Mark Fisher.

Mr Fisher was preparing for his performance on BBC's Newsnight. As Mr Smith turned off his CDs to watch Mr Fisher perform on the box he must have been aghast, his copy of The Prelude (1805) dashed from his lap to the floor. There was Mr Fisher saying a decision had been made, a clear contradiction of that afternoon's select committee performance by his boss.

By Thursday, there was a damage limitation exercise, open government style. Mr Smith gave Mr Fisher a dressing down and admitted publicly to having done so. He partly blamed the alleged hectoring tactics of Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark, though as a former Late Show presenter Wark too must be classed as an aesthete, and no common-or- garden BBC hectoress. So that one didn't cut too much ice.

By yesterday, Mr Smith needed to relax. As he probably wouldn't be too welcome at the ENO this weekend, he might instead have wanted to settle down with a good book (preferably published in 1805). Down to his local library, St Luke's in Islington, he may have strolled, a good place to go in National Libraries Week, particularly when libraries come under his portfolio.

But oops. The National Libraries Week campaign, which he had actually launched on Monday, was now highlighting a list of shame: local authorities closing libraries. Top of the list was Islington, planning to close St Luke's. Mr Smith's constituency? you guessed it, Islington South and Finsbury. The bad week was complete. Ever felt like taking to the Lake District for the weekend and wandering lonely as a cloud?

- David Lister, Arts News Editor

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