Back to

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 politicians ...
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 week.
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 care.
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 courtiers.
"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 Straw's ire.
"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 mistake?
"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 stable."
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 Commission.
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 at