The IoS Interview: Sir Christopher Meyer - No regrets. No apologies
The former ambassador to Washington has been taking a bashing all week.
But, he tells Francis Elliott, he is in no mood to take lectures from
Published: 13 November 2005
Oh dear. This is all most regrettable. Not at all what was intended. Urged
by friends to set down "old war stories". Meant, really, as a defence of
diplomacy in the modern age. Sought proper approval. Cue "explosive kerfuffle" -
Foreign Secretary now "bonkers".
Sir Christopher Meyer is not a man to panic. White-water rafting with
Donald Rumsfeld and camping in the woods with Henry Kissinger can steel the
nerves like that. We know this because Sir Christopher, Britain's ambassador to
the US until 2003, details his adventures with the American political elite in
his new memoir, DC Confidential, serialised to great consternation last
It is, however, his portraits of UK politicians - John Prescott as a
bristling "mastiff", Geoff Hoon as a frigid "panda", other ministers as
"pygmies" - that have unleashed the political furies. The coalition of the
outraged is broad and resolute. From Jack Straw to Sir Menzies Campbell, the
tutting has grown deafening. There have been calls for him to stand down as
chairman of the Press Complaints Commission.
What if Mr Prescott or Mr Hoon were to complain to the PCC about what he
wrote? Spread across a sofa in his Chelsea townhouse, the former ambassador
affects insouciance. "If a complaint comes in that is linked to the book then
obviously I would recuse [excuse] myself from any adjudication. What we are
talking about is the appearance of a conflict of interest and I would always err
on the side of caution. If somebody thought they were not going to get a fair
whack because of something I wrote, then I would stand back."
As if to underline how very unworried he is, he reveals that he has just
had his contract as the head of the watchdog renewed for another three years.
So, one can't help asking, nobody at any time thought there might be something
of a conflict of interest in the chairman of the PCC writing an explosive
account of the most dramatic period in recent British history? "No. No. I can
look you in the eye and say that."
He admits that "people were concerned - and let's be absolutely frank about
this - whether I was going to take money from newspapers". Once he had made
clear the serialisation cash - rumoured to be around £290,000 - would go to
charity the project was waved through.
Royalties, on the other hand, remain payable to the Meyer account. "Money
from the serialisation will go to charity, but book sales? Are you serious? Come
on, give me the money!"
To those who ask how he can be trusted not to spill the beans a second
time, he offers a novel defence: they are not interesting enough to spill. "How
do we know that this man, having put his pen down exhausted from having written
DC Confidential, is not going to write a PCC Confidential? In other words, how
can we be sure that the secrets of the PCC (there aren't any) are safe with this
chairman? Well, the answer to that question is that even if I had the
inclination - which I don't - there is not the raw material to create a book, so
that analogy is absolutely false."
It's a shame because if his first effort is anything to go by, the
follow-up would be a riot. His inside story of Tony Blair's relationship with
George Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war is laden with delicious detail.
Peaceniks may be disappointed by the narrative: the war was right; Mr Blair did
not lie; there was no secret deal to "whack Iraq" - but only the earnest will
He reveals, for example that when Cherie (of whom he is very fond) is about
to meet the Bushes for the first time in Camp David, she remarks gloomily: "'I
don't suppose they are looking forward to this any more than we are.' A pained
expression fleetingly crossed [Blair's] face." Mr Hoon is depicted as so
terrified of Donald Rumsfeld that it becomes the subject of diplomatic
hand-wringing. "It was like getting pandas to mate."
For Mr Blair himself there is more respect. His most telling criticism is
that the Prime Minister does not "do detail". There are several attacks on Mr
Blair's aides, but Sir Christopher is still diplomatic - and careful - enough
not to name names. (The irony, according to Downing Street gossip, is that his
principal target is someone he himself brought into No 10 when he was John
Major's press secretary.)
"Having been a courtier myself in the court of John Major ... courtiers
always amplify the position of their bosses. Blair was also in his glory years
and the courtiers were intoxicated by it. That was really the problem. I always
made a distinction between the man himself (and indeed Cherie) and the
"I never had a problem with the big beasts, the big people - Alastair
[Campbell], I got on very well with Alastair. Jonathan [Powell] used to work for
me - no problem with Jonathan. [John] Sawers and [Sir David] Manning - old
muckers from the Foreign Office. It was down below."
More than once sitting in Washington, our man admits feeling that he was
being bypassed as No 10 sought to deal with the "Bushies" directly. There was a
regrettable attempt to deny him dinner with the President.
But if Sir Christopher occasionally felt out of the loop, pity poor Jack
Straw. The Foreign Secretary hardly gets a mention in the ambassador's narrative
of the road to war - something he admits that might have helped to provoke Mr
"This is where Jack goes bonkers. On the whole, even when we were moving
into troubled waters, first with Afghanistan and then Iraq, personally I just
didn't find myself dealing with the Foreign Office. The strategic conversations,
the big conversations, were all with Downing Street - that's just the way that
it came out."
Sir Christopher says his orders from No 10 were to "get up the arse of the
White House and stay there". So his book, not surprisingly, is a view from the
Bush fundament. He is, he says, "a fan". Neo-cons such as Paul Wolfowitz, Dick
Cheney and Condoleezza Rice are generally sympathetically portrayed. So just how
bad does the situation in Iraq have to get before he admits it was a
"I can't answer that question. There were a lot of mistakes at the
beginning. I think everyone admits that and I suspect that, if Jeremy's
[Greenstock] book ever sees the light of day, it will explain that in some
detail." For him, though, the compelling argument is that we cannot yet say to
the relatives of the dead that their sacrifice was in vain.
"The tipping point for me is something Colin Powell said to me, long before
he became Secretary of State. We were talking about the incident in Mogadishu
[in which 18 US soldiers were killed]. Powell said the problem about leaving
Somalia immediately after Mogadishu is that we gave the impression that their
deaths were for nothing. What do we say to the relatives? I look at Iraq now -
more than 2,000 American dead, almost 100 British dead. For me the more
persuasive argument is that we have to be able to show that their deaths were
not in vain, and I believe that we have not yet got to the end of that road that
tells us whether we have created something durable, democratic and reasonably
Nor is Sir Christopher in any mood to take lectures from politicians on
disclosing the events that led Britain into war.
"There is an imbalance between civil servants and politicians. People say
that I breached a trust - well, leave aside the fact that this has gone through
the Cabinet Office machine, there seems to be no bar whatsoever on politicians
writing books thatcover areas in which they are dealing with civil servants. Yet
civil servants are supposed to take a vow of indefinite silence. So give me a
break about the breach of trust. So much of this is double standards - and
somewhere out there is the public right to know.
"I deliberately took 10 paces back from the serialisation. You've got to
live with the outcome. People will say, you shouldn't have serialised at all -
well that's also hindsight, isn't it?"
BIOGRAPHY- From Peterhouse to the doghouse
Born: 22 February 1944. His father, Flight Lt R H R Meyer, was killed in
action before Christopher was born. Two sons from first marriage. Married
Catherine Layelle in 1997.
Educated: Lancing College, Peterhouse, Cambridge. Came top in Foreign
Office exams. Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Bologna
(aka "the spy school").
Career: Stints in Moscow and Madrid before becoming Geoffrey Howe's press
secretary in 1984. Had a spell in Washington, and was recalled to London to
serve as John Major's press secretary in 1994. Was sent as our man in Washington
by Tony Blair in 1997. Retired in 2003. Now chairman of Press Complaints
To order a copy of DC Confidential at the special price of £17 (rrp £20)
with free p&p call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or order online