Cabe's prospects of securing former secretary of state for culture Chris Smith as its chairman could be undermined if the government decides to hold a late general election

Smith has already said that he will not contest the election. However if he is appointed before then, he would have to juggle the chairmanship with his responsibilities as MP for Islington South and Finsbury.

As the CABE job would take up eight days a month, there would be a question mark over whether he could act effectively and independently on the commission’s behalf.

Smith has been tipped as the favourite to take the post, which has been filled by deputy chairman Paul Finch since Sir Stuart Lipton resigned in June.

He is understood to have been interviewed for the job last month. However, his parliamentary office said he was making no comment about it. An announcement from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on the vacancy is understood to be imminent.

A source close to the selection process said that DCMS ministers were mindful that there was no way of knowing when the election would be.

The source added that Smith’s other alternative – to resign and force a by-election – would not be welcomed by the Labour party.

He said: “There is a general consensus that the election will be around May next year, but it might not be until June 2006. And Labour will not want a by-election at the moment.”

The election may not be until June 2006. Labour will not want a by-election at the moment

DCMS insider

The interviews were conducted by a senior civil servant at the DCMS, a senior developer and a neutral party.

The panel then drew up a shortlist of qualified candidates, which has been submitted to culture secretary Tessa Jowell.

Other interviewees included John Sorrell, head of the Sorrell Foundation and a former chair of the UK Design Council, John Callcutt, the chief executive of Crest Nicholson, and Kate Priestly, the former head of NHS Estates.

It is understood that the delay in naming the successful candidate has been caused partly by the fact that Jowell has had to devote much of her time to the government’s gambling legislation, which is currently before the house.

f CABE inquiry, page 15