Mr Nice Guy, with a knack for survival

Once regarded as merely a safe pair of hands, his moment has come with the unveiling of a series of grand new arts projects
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The Independent Online

The Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, has been having some fun. While more senior Cabinet ministers agonised over last week's election results, Smith was enjoying a round of celebrations marking the opening of stunning new art galleries. After launching Museums and Galleries Month at the recently extended Wallace Collection on Tuesday, he popped into the National Portrait Gallery on Wednesday to attend the opening of its extension by the Queen, before heading for the benefactors' dinner at the stunning Tate Modern - one of the big events of this year's arts calendar.

That was not all. A great movie fan, Smith was also giving a boost to Britain's film industry. The new Film Council for the UK, under the chairmanship of the film director Alan Parker, will have a budget of £150m from National Lottery funds. At the glitzy launch Smith said that film-making should no longer be restricted to big studios and big budgets. He even announced a million- pound scheme aimed at encouraging youngsters to make their own films using the latest low-cost digital technology that produced The Blair Witch Project. Thankfully he did not put it this way, but his message was clear: film-making should be for the many, not the few.

Accessibility to the arts has been Smith's driving theme since he became Culture Secretary. In a recent interview for the New Statesman he spoke of reviving communities by giving more people access to the arts. He boldly claimed that "the things we deal with in the department tend to give real meaning to people's lives, the things people talk about in pubs with friends. The arts and sport create a real sense of identity for communities and real people".

From the lips of some politicians such grand talk would sound like romanticised waffle. But Smith believes it, and has enough of a genuine passion for the arts to avoid sounding silly. This is something of a novelty for a Culture Secretary in Britain.

It was David Mellor who declared that he was "going to have some fun" when he was appointed to the newly created Heritage Department in April 1992. Unfortunately for Mellor the fun he was having with a Spanish actress prevented him from enjoying himself in his new cabinet job for very long. He was gone within months. Those who succeeded him in John Major's doomed administration did not share Mellor's enthusiasm for the arts and sport. The likes of Virginia Bottomley looked out of place when greeting footballers at Cup Finals or promoting Macbeth in the inner cities. In contrast Smith shares Mellor's untested commitment. Unlike Mellor he has been enjoying himself in the job for three years.

This in itself is something of an achievement. Heritage Secretaries have tended to come and go quicker than West End flops. Even more so, considering that Tony Blair has moved or sacked most of his middle-ranking Cabinet ministers. Smith was appointed to the job in May 1997 and has been there ever since.

He not only knows what art he likes, he knows a lot about art in general. Remarkably for a Culture Secretary, he goes to cultural events out of pleasure, not just duty. Unlike his immediate predecessor, Stephen Dorrell, who thought that Jeanne Moreau was a man, Smith's tastes include the cinema and he lists his favourite films as Casablanca, Nashville and Local Hero. He did not look out of place at the launch of the new Film Council.

The reaction to the launch was predictable. Some film-makers complained that the money was nowhere near substantial enough. This ignores Smith's earlier efforts to secure tax breaks for film-makers announced in Gordon Brown's second Budget. The other onslaught has come from elements in the media suggesting that movies do not deserve subsidy from the taxpayer, or in this particular case the lottery player. The old debate obscures Smith's determination to target the cash on young film-makers in local communities. He has also tried to redirect some of the other lottery cash to deprived areas. In a few weeks' time he will launch a new scheme, "The Lottery In Coalfield Areas", aimed at getting more money into areas hit by pit closures.

But we should not get too dewy-eyed. Smith is hugely constrained in the amount of cash he can spend and what he can do with it. It is the Treasury that calls the tunes, and Smith has never enjoyed a particularly good relationship with Gordon Brown. In opposition Smith was moved around from job to job, usually at Brown's prompting. When Smith was Social Security spokesman Blair famously asked him to "think the unthinkable". A member of the Brown entourage said at the time "All he did was go away and work out schemes which would cost billions of pounds". He was soon moved to Health , but the Brownites had him marked down as a high spender and he never got the job in government.

Like most ministers he did not do especially well in the early public spending round which followed the election. The theatrical knights Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn hit the roof over the Government's parsimony, heaping invective on Smith. His critics in the arts establishment have higher hopes in the current expenditure review, which will be announced in July, but they are not holding their breath. In the meantime Smith's failure to win more cash has prevented him from implementing the pledge to introduce free museum charges for everyone.

Some of the more sensitive decisions facing Smith's department are also, in effect, taken by Blair and Brown. It was these two alone who, with the Sun breathing down their necks, made the decision to oppose a new licence fee for owners of digital TVs, as recommended by the Gavyn Davies report. (Smith's friends say, rightly, that he always had doubts about the political implications of the Davies report, but he was not present when Blair and Brown resolved the matter during their informal meetings in Downing Street.) It was Blair, also, who told Smith to stress the need for the BBC to find substantial efficiency savings, although Smith himself has always felt that the BBC was far too bureaucratic.

Even so Smith is respected by broadcasters as a safe pair of hands who has successfully driven through significant reforms, including changes to the Channel 4 funding formula, and the expansion of digital TV. Like most ministers in a cautious Government, his changes have been incremental.

The evolutionary approach has applied to his reforms of the lottery as well. He tried a more dramatic approach early on by summoning Camelot's managers to a meeting in which he attacked the amount they paid themselves. But Smith was criticised by some Blairites for telling a private company how to conduct itself. Since then Smith has adopted more subtle techniques. The National Lottery Commission, which will decide shortly whether Camelot's licence is to be renewed, has to take into account whether bidders have "procedures which guard against levels of remuneration that are excessive in relation to the responsibilities and performance of management".

Most leaders in the arts testify to Smith's niceness, but he can be tough, too. He went into parliament via the gruelling route of left-wing politics in Islington. He was chief whip on an unruly Islington council, one of the more challenging briefs in local government. His public avowal of his homosexuality at a time when no other MP dared to "come out" was further evidence of his toughness.

There is little point in the arts establishment bemoaning Smith's weakness in the face of the Treasury. The same would apply to any successor. In a Government closely controlled from the centre, Smith is the best the arts are likely to get.

It is almost as if he had been auditioning for the role before his meandering political career. He got a first in English at Cambridge, where he was also president of the Union. After a stint at Harvard, he wrote his PhD thesis on "The Idea of Solitude: Studies in a Changing World from Pomfret to Wordsworth". His favourite poem is Wordsworth's The Prelude, "in the 1805 edition"; in interviews he also enthuses convincingly about Shakespeare, Monet, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Beatles and Arsenal football club. There is no one else in the Cabinet who could compete with this range of cultural and sporting interests.

But Smith's political future is not especially secure. He is not part of the Blairite inner circle, and in some areas is to the left of New Labour. Nor is Smith a great manoeuvrer in the Machiavellian world of New Labour politics. He is not, for example, an especially good self-publicist. Indeed his few attempts at achieving a higher profile have been surprisingly embarrassing. In 1998 he published a book on the arts called Creative Britain, which got dreadful reviews.

He has also been associated with some uniquely British cock-ups, such as the unworkable plan for Wembley Stadium which included the incorporation of an athletics track, the halting relaunch of the Royal Opera House, and the bland Millennium Dome. In reality Smith acted quickly to halt the Wembley débâcle, was on the side of those who wanted Covent Garden to be less élitist, and was never responsible for the day-to-day running of the Dome. Even so he is Culture Secretary at a time when Britain still cannot deliver cultural institutions and events with the same panache as some other European countries.

At 48, Smith is still young enough to have many more years of Cabinet experience ahead of him. But younger Blairites are knocking on the Cabinet door. He is fortunate that he and his department will remain constantly in the public eye this year with more high-profile openings, such as the British Museum Great Court, Somerset House, and the Wellcome Wing at the Science museum, as culture grows in social, economic and political importance. And if solid, decent competence and an enthusiasm for a brief are qualifications for ministerial longevity, Smith will be safe. But if the PM seeks a whiff of daring Blairite youth to add some sparkle to a second term, Smith might have even more time to read Wordsworth after the election.