Ed Vaizey: 'I was once made Minister for Trade – for about half an hour'
Culture minister Ed Vaizey tells Ian Burrell about BSkyB, Angry Birds and why the reality of coalition is beyond anything in The Thick Of It
Ed Vaizey has one of the most broad-ranging and enviable portfolios in the Coalition Government. As the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, his office oversees everything from the arts to computer gaming and has recently added architecture and design to his brief.
But in bizarre circumstances, Vaizey also found himself accepting a vast array of other responsibilities. "I was Minister of Trade – for half an hour," he reveals.
Until last year, Vaizey's job spanned the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, where, much to his excitement, he found himself being briefed for a new Government role by a senior figure from UK Trade & Investment (UKTI). "I was thinking to myself... I'm an incredibly talented minister and they obviously think that despite my huge portfolio I can handle this with absolute aplomb. I sat there thinking of all the things I would do as Trade minister," he recalls.
And then his Liberal Democrat colleague Ed Davey walked into the room and the civil servant told Vaizey: "I'm so sorry, I've been briefing the wrong minister." It's a picture of the Coalition Government which Armando Iannucci would struggle to better in the political satire The Thick Of It, which the minister for television says he hasn't been watching, although he is credited as a commentator in a previous series.
Vaizey, 44, the brother of the art critic Marina Vaizey, is brimming with enthusiasm for the creative sector but in an economic downturn he faces a difficult task in convincing an art establishment dominated by Labour luvvies. "It sort of gets me going," he says. "I do think there's a kind of knee jerk [sense that] the Tories must be bad for the arts. I grew up in the arts and I care passionately about them, so I think it's very unfair."
He may not have applied to become Trade minister but Vaizey was tipped to succeed Jeremy Hunt as Culture Secretary, though the job went to Maria Miller in the recent reshuffle. He praises Hunt's recent performance under fire over his relationship with News Corp during the failed BSkyB takeover. "He is, I think, a man of great integrity. I think he got given an extremely hard time, I think he was extraordinarily resilient throughout the process and I'm very pleased to see that he has been made Health Secretary."
He claims he is "very pleased" for Ms Miller, that he likes "ploughing my own particular furrow" and that his current role "covers all the areas I'm passionate about". To emphasise this point he has decorated his office with items that signify his areas of responsibility; a framed tribute from the Brit music awards, a painting by John Hubbard and, in pride of place, the Oscar won by Cecil Beaton for costume design for My Fair Lady in 1964.
He would like to make a further addition but, to his chagrin, his requests for a games console in his office have been rejected by unidentified "powers that be" as inappropriate. "I was encouraged not to, in case it looked frivolous," he says. "But I think I will renew my campaign. I have a television so why can't I have a games console?"
He knows that a modern media minister must have a firm grasp of digital technology but admits to ignorance of the sector when he became shadow Culture minister six years ago. "I knew nothing about gaming in terms of either doing games or its policy place."
A born-again gamer, Vaizey has latterly told one specialist website that "I would see video games as an art". His own 1980s gaming career began as a schoolboy with Asteroids and Space Invaders, but he floundered over the complexities of Defender. "It was the game that put me off gaming – because I wasn't any good at it," he laments.
But Apple technology has given him a way back and, having been an "early adopter" of the iPhone app Angry Birds he progressed to Plants vs Zombies and now plays Monopoly on his iPad during trips on the Tube.
Readers who share with the "powers that be" a sense that such activity is frivolous should be aware that gaming has become an important sector of the British economy. Vaizey will be emphasising the point when he chairs a session on gaming at tomorrow's Royal Television Society 2012 Digital World Conference. "We have a great heritage in games and we want to exploit," he says.
Vaizey, a qualified barrister, was part of the Notting Hill set that relaunched the Tories under David Cameron. He edited the Blue Books series that helped shape modern Conservative policy. Yet he says he has adapted easily to Coalition politics. "I don't want to enrage my backbench colleagues but the two things I say to Conservative associations are, firstly, we didn't win the election so we didn't have a majority, and I thought the Prime Minister had a bold vision that a coalition was the wise thing to do, going through such difficult economic times. I think it has worked incredibly well."
His loyalty to the Prime Minister does not prevent him from acknowledging Labour's central role in the success of the Olympics. "Tessa Jowell deserves all credit – there are people working in this department who remember the day she got the brief that said bidding for the Olympics was insane and she went round Whitehall and turned people around."
And though he laughs at the mention of Boris Johnson's name, he accepts that he is an "asset" in promoting London to the world. "Boris is an exuberant character who is loved by the media," he says. If there's one thing that does annoy him it's that more people are not similarly exuberant. "I get annoyed by our lack of self-confidence," he says, "I think Britain is arguably the hi-tech centre of Europe".
Although Britain seriously lags in its supply of broadband, he is excited about the forthcoming 4G auction and the amount of inward investment generated by British television. "We get called the Ministry of Fun but in terms of economic growth our contribution would be very significant."
In a further gush of enthusiasm, he has another The Thick of It moment when describing a tech company that makes "whatever it's called, you know... when the guys put ping pongs up their arms. I don't know the technical term, computer animation". There's no doubt that Ed Vaizey is a bit of a one-off.
ED VAIZEY'S HIGHLIGHTS OF 2012
The Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games was an amazing event that showcased the very best of British cultural achievements to a global audience of more than a billion people.
El Sistema / Big Noise Concert
Learning how music transformed the lives of so many children from the slums in Venezuela, and to see them performing, as adults, in concert alongside the children of Raploch was an incredible experience.
Leonardo @ National Gallery
The breathtaking "Leonardo" exhibition was a triumph for the National Gallery, attracting record crowds and widespread critical acclaim.
Julius Caesar @ RSC
Everything about this production, the powerful acting, the intriguing set, the music and the costumes, was executed brilliantly. One of the best things I've seen on stage for a very long time.
Tracey Emin @ Margate
As part of the Cultural Olympiad, this exhibition, held in the artist's home town, was stunning. We are very lucky to have so many fantastic regional museums like the Turner Contemporary in Margate.
Ed Vaizey chairs a discussion on what TV broadcasters can learn from the games industry at the Royal Television Society 2012 Digital World Conference, Friday, 28 September at The Barbican, London, www.rts.org.uk
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