Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  Q120  Chairman: They all seem to me to be entirely straightforward. To go round claiming that somehow this book has been approved by somebody . . . I have looked at all the correspondence, closing with this letter from the Cabinet Secretary expressing his disappointment that a former diplomat should disclose confidence gained as a result of his employment. The idea that this can be sold as some kind of approval for the process is ludicrous, is it not?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I think there is something wrong with the process. I think there is something very wrong with the process, and let me explain why: I finished this book and handed in the last chapters on 13 September of this year. On 7 October the manuscript was given to the Cabinet Office as requested and as expected under the rules. It emerged from the Cabinet Office two weeks later, on October 21, with a phone call from the Cabinet Office to my publishers saying the Government has no comment to make on this book. I interpreted that, as did everybody else, that this was a green light to publish. You may laugh, Chairman.

  Q121  Chairman: That is a laughable statement. That is why I laugh.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not think it is a laughable statement. If we go on further beyond 21 October and look at the Cabinet Secretary's letter to my publisher, it embellishes what was said in the telephone conversation.

  Q122  Chairman: People thought this was a wholly disreputable enterprise that you should not go anywhere near. You were going to publish this book anyway, were you not?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: No, Chairman, I was not going to publish this book anyway and you have no basis on which to say that.

  Q123  Chairman: If the Cabinet Secretary had said to you, "Look, this is not something that you should do," you would have said, "Oh, sorry, I didn't realise that. I'm not going to do it any more."

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I would have expected what Lord Wilson said to you, I think last month, in giving evidence, that in circumstances like that the Cabinet Secretary would invite the putative writer to come in and discuss the issues, the chapters, the words, whatever, in the book with which he disagreed. That is what I would have expected.

  Q124  Chairman: Lord Wilson thought you would suffer reputational damage for what you have done.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Lord Wilson is entitled to his opinion, Chairman. I take a different opinion here.

  Q125  Chairman: You cannot cite him in one breath and then damn him in the next.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: You can actually.

  Chairman: I see.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: And I do.

  Chairman: I see. I see.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: It depends what he says. There is a point I would like to make—or am I talking too much?

  Chairman: No, do carry on.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Thank you, Chairman. Looking at the Foreign Secretary's written answer to Mr Prentice, what has interested me in that is that he cites the three Radcliffe criteria: harm to national security; harm to international relations; harm to confidential relationships. He appears to say in this written answer—and he used the word "cleared" because he talks about standard criteria for clearance—he appears to say in this written answer that the book was cleared against the first two criteria: harm to national security; harm to relations—with United States, he actually says a bit later on; but on the third criterion, against which one would have expected a judgment to be made, namely harm to confidential relationships, there is silence. Instead, he launches an attack on me for breach of confidence and breach of trust. The question I asked myself was: What did this process of clearance mean? If there had been breaches of confidence and breaches of trust, why did the process not pick them up? Why was the book not stopped? Why was I not asked to change things? I think there are very big question marks that hang over procedure.

  Q126  Chairman: Let us assume that we have had the conversation about the process and you say it could be better and we can have the discussion about the regulations and so on—and colleagues, I am sure, will ask you questions about this—but all those things are only a way of stating what should be the blindingly obvious to public servants, are they not? This is what Radcliffe told us 30 years ago, but it all comes back, basically, to how people behave. One of your predecessors, Ambassador in Washington Lord Renwick, writing about your book said, "Sir Christopher has published the book we all would have loved to write about bumbling ministers, feckless royals and mistakes which, in retrospect, clearly should have been avoided. The difficulty in actually doing so is that it is liable to worsen the tendency he deplores of prime ministers relying increasingly on their personal staffs and political appointees, rather than the mandarins who are supposed to advise them behind closed doors." Is that not really why this was so idiotic? It may make you some money, but it brings a whole tradition of public service down with it and simply closes ever tighter the circle around those people at the centre who can no longer trust people on whom traditionally they have relied for impartial advice.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I disagree with you, Chairman. I am sorry to have to say this.

  Chairman: Well, you are disagreeing with Lord Renwick, not me.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Well, I disagree with Lord Renwick. I take it from your remarks that you endorse what Lord Renwick has just said, so probably I disagree with both of you.

  Chairman: It seems to me to be a shrewd analysis.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I am saying here that, looking over the last few years—and this is why I say there ought to be consistent rules for politicians, special advisors and civil servants—I have not noticed a great restraint on the part of special advisors in writing their memoirs also. The notion that, if you like, it is safer or more secure to employ a political appointee or a special adviser seems to me to be at the least dubious. But, to come back again to the central point, we have a procedure for clearing these texts, these books. It exists; it is there. It is now presided over by Sir Gus O'Donnell; it used to be presided over by Sir Andrew Turnbull. This procedure is supposed to tackle precisely these issues. In this case, if these allegations are true, it failed in its purpose.

  Chairman: We have all read these regulations. They all seem to us to be conspicuously clear. I think what puzzles us is not only that you find them unclear but that you do not understand the purpose behind them, which is to preserve a tradition of disinterested public service from which we all benefit. You may have gained a private benefit from this but there has been a public disbenefit as a result from which we will all suffer. But let me bring Grant Shapps in.

  Q127  Grant Shapps: You write that the Foreign Secretary is a pygmy; the Deputy Prime Minister thinks the Falklands are the Balklands; and you write that "Cook was having difficulty with a constituent who had a child abduction problem with the United States. If we could help on that, Cook would raise Catherine's case with the German Foreign Minister . . . This was, Catherine and I thought, as ethical as a £7 note. But needs must when the devil drives." Do you think your reputation has been damaged by this publication?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not think my reputation has been damaged by this publication at all. There are some people obviously who do not like it, who disagree with it. I have to say on the basis of emails and postbags and doing book tours around the country, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. On the pygmy point, if I may, I do not think a single politician is identified in the book as a pygmy, or, indeed, as a Masai warrior.

  Q128  Grant Shapps: You do feel a tinge of embarrassment about this book now, as you revealed in your opening comments, I think.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: The sort of "red-sock fop thing", I mean, you know . . . .

  Q129  Grant Shapps: Did it surprise you?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: That? Yes, I think so.

  Q130  Grant Shapps: The amount of pressure that you have come under from this publication. You are surprised by that.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Well, the amount of pressure that has come from certain quarters has caught me by surprise, because, in spite of what the Chairman says, I believe I played this by the rules, put it into the system and got clearance.

  Q131  Grant Shapps: By "certain quarters" do you mean the Cabinet Secretary? When you say "by certain quarters" who are you talking about?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Well, all kinds of stuff has appeared in the press. There has been the red-socked fop business. This is the most salient, if you like.

  Q132  Grant Shapps: So you are surprised by the press reaction, even though—

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I am surprised by the political reaction, I am surprised by some of the press reaction. But, I mean, for God's sake, this is a democracy.

  Q133  Grant Shapps: You are the Chairman of the PCC. You are surprised by the reaction of the press? As if you do not know the way the press might react.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: My job is not to represent the press. That is not my business.

  Q134  Grant Shapps: No, but you know them inside out, do you not?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Yes, I suppose so. I would not claim knowledge quite as deep as that.

  Q135  Grant Shapps: In publishing—

Sir Christopher Meyer: But there have been things that have surprised me, let me put it that way, obviously.

  Q136  Grant Shapps: This Committee has spent a lot of time looking at the Radcliffe Rules, which, we have said before, for the time seemed to be very well written, brilliantly crafted and, in fact, have stood the test of time and essentially these rules work because people go along with them. You have pressed, though, I think the "good chaps theory" to the limit, to breaking point, have you not?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: There are two things to be said here. Radcliffe and his three criteria are still relevant. The Foreign Secretary refers to them in his written answer to Mr Prentice. My point is that my book appears to have been judged on only two out of the three Radcliffe criteria, because if there are the objections that there are to the book, then I should have heard from the Cabinet Office who should have said to me, "Oi", but they did not.

  Q137  Grant Shapps: Your defence, if you do not mind me saying, seems to be something along the lines of saying, "I was slightly ignorant of the rules", or, "They did not put the rules into place sufficiently robustly in the Cabinet Office." That is your defence: "It is not, my fault, guv, I did not know"?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: My deduction from this is that the system is not working or was not working in my case, because—I keep on having to come back to this—if there is an objection about breach of confidence then under the Radcliffe Rules, which I take it are still pertinent, I should have been contacted by the Cabinet Office and told, "We think you breach those rules", and then there would have been a discussion.

  Q138  Grant Shapps: Do you know what this is like? This is like going to a restaurant. You go out for dinner; you have a lovely meal; they forget to charge you for the main course. Do you walk out or do you tell them?" You walked out of the restaurant.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not quite get the culinary analogy.

  Q139  Grant Shapps: It is not to do with food, it is to do with the principle, and it is as simple as this. You wrote a book which you thought was going to be challenged. It was not challenged. Somehow it slipped through the Cabinet Office with less challenge than you thought it was going to achieve. When they did not pick anything up. Rather than, perhaps as you might have done, going to them and saying, "I think perhaps we ought to have a meeting. I know there are some things in here which must cause concern", you said, "Oh, that is all right, guv, they have left if off the bill. I will just walk out and publish this now"?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: It is an imaginative analogy, but I do not think I will buy it: because if we are going to have rules they have got to be clear.

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