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January 09, 2006

DC Confidential - Christopher Meyer

Posted by Harry Phibbs

DC Confidential
by Christopher Meyer
Pp. 288. London: Weidenfield and Nicholson
Hardback, 20

Sir Christopher Meyer has been an ambassador to Germany and the US, Press Secretary to Sir John Major and is now head of the Press Complaints Commission. I don't understand the row the publication of this book has caused. The Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (who comes out badly from it) has responded by complaining that it is a breach of trust, because private conversations are included. Is Straw promising never to write his own memoirs? Or not to include private conversations? Why should the rules be different for politicians than for officials? I don't see the logic.

Anyway, when did Straw start being so high minded? He used to work as a Special Advisor to Barbara Castle who said she hired him because she admired his "guile and low cunning".

In 1999 as Home Secretary Straw addressed the Freedom of Information annual awards ceremony. He declared:

We have brought forward plans to legislate to implement our long-standing promise for freedom of information legislation. But, second, we are already seeking to change the culture, not just by our words, but by our deeds.

So what of the book itself? Meyer includes a chapter about his time as ambassador to Germany. Astonishingly he admits to not liking Germans very much. It was all due to the failure of his efforts to help his new wife Catherine over a custody battle over her children to her previous husband, a German. It was the delays and contradictions of the German legal process that dismayed the Meyers:

It merited in full the overworked term "kafka-esque". In the process it destroyed most of my feelings of sympathy and friendship for Germany.
A large part of the book is a love story. One evening, when he was ambassador to Germany and Catherine was in London, he had promised to phone her from Berlin at 10 pm. It was still at the early stage of their relationship. Meyer writes:
Yehudi Menuhin was staying the night and he and I were to dine alone at my residence. Just as I thought that the dinner was about to end in good time for me to call Catherine, Yehudi drew from an inner pocket a plan for global peace, which he wished to send to the leaders of the world. He insisted on reading it out.

"What do you think?" he asked, as he finished reading it.

"Terrific. Eloquent. Just the ticket," I replied.

"It's not quite right," said Yehudi. "It needs some improvement. If you don't mind, let's go through it together line by line. It will benefit from your experience."

The ingratiating smile on my face hardened into a frozen rictus.

Luckily, she forgave him.

In contrast to the German experience when it comes to his time in Washington a sincere and deep affection for Americans comes out of the pages. Naturally these feelings are given heightened emotion by his period as our Ambassador there including September 11th 2001. He gives a vivid account of the appreciation towards British solidarity at that extraordinary time:

On Thursday, 13 September, at the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, the band of the Coldstream Guards played the "Star-Spangled Banner". This was something without precedent. At the embassy we were inundated with phone calls, faxes, letters and emails of gratitude and appreciation. Condi Rice later recounted how she had returned to her apartment that evening after another exhausting day, turned on the television, saw the Coldstreams playing, and, for the first time since 9/11 wept.
It fell to Meyer to read out a message from The Queen at a Memorial Service for the victims. The final sentence was:
Grief is the price we pay for love.
Meyer's earlier job as John Major's spokesman, during the period when the media was dominated by stories about sleaze and splits over Europe, was not one many would have envied him. Meyer claims to have considerable affection for the press and has gone relatively easy on them in his current job at the PCC.

But he does suggest that the personal hygiene habits of lobby correspondents could be improved. He reflects on his time briefing the press at 11am each morning in Downing Street. He says:

As many as 25 journalists could be crammed into my modest office. There were small chairs for only about half a dozen. The rest stood or sat on the floor. If it had been raining, there was an odour redolent of wet dog mixed with wet sock. I faced them, seated in a grand chair. An image of reading bedtime stories to my children would flash through my mind.
In a way it is surprising that New Labour were willing to allow his career to proceed after his prominent association with the ancien regime. But evidently they appreciated that he was a civil servant genuinely seeking to do a professional job rather than a political apparatchik.

Not that he found New Labour's approach entirely congenial. As ambassador they tried to prevent him attending a dinner with Bush and Blair and other senior officials - had they succeeded his credibility as ambassador would have been in shreds.

Then he recounts President Bush's first visit to Britain.

I arrived at Chequers just before the Bushes. I found an anxious Blair with John Sawyers his Foreign Policy Advisor and Jonathan Powell. Blair appeared to express relief at my arrival.

"Where have the Americans got to on missile defence? And what do I say?" Blair asked me urgently about the top issue of the moment.

I was baffled. Twenty-four hours earlier I had sent No 10 the latest in a series of reports on just these questions. Why do I bother? I thought to myself.

Why indeed. It is not the first (or I suspect the last) account of Blair and his spin machine being weak on detail and unprepared to
grapple with the substance of policy.

Let us finish, where we began. What does Meyer think of Jack Straw? He was "mystifyingly tongue-tied" when as Home Secretary he met US Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI director Louis Freeh in 1999. Sir Christopher says:

He was not much better in his early days as Foreign Secretary. With the acquisition of experience, Straw was to develop into a solid and competent Foreign Secretary, though, as the French say, he did not invent gunpowder.
No wonder Straw would rather this book hadn't appeared. I am pleased that it has.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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