Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180
THURSDAY 15 DECEMBER 2005
Q180 Julie Morgan: Why did you say
that you briefed John Major in his underpants?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I have
never used the word "underpants", boxer shorts, thongs,
Speedos or whatever in relation to John Major. It was not I but
Lord Armstrong who introduced underpants into the discussion,
and, indeed, that very episode, trying to describe what it is
like working in Downing Street, where the pressure is so great
that you have to start before breakfast, the first description
of going to the Majors' bedroom to consult with the Prime Minister
is, of course, to be found in the book co-authored by the Prime
Minister's wife The Goldfish Bowl, and who provides the
description for the Prime Minister's wife in The Goldfish Bowl?
None other than Howell James, currently Permanent Secretary for
Government Communications; so this whole thing about underpants
and John Major is a complete canard because the Majors gave their
approval for this to be in The Goldfish Bowl, so this is
a complete red herring.
Chairman: I think we have heard enough.
I think it would be very nice to get away, if we could, from John
Sir Christopher Meyer: Which do
not feature. His shirt-tails are mentioned!
Q181 Julie Morgan: Why did you involve
Barbara Taylor Bradford in trying to make a transition from the
quid pros of the Civil Service to something which you think
is more entertaining to the reader? Could you explain that process?
Sir Christopher Meyer: Yes, I
will. I did detect earlier on in a remark to the Committee a bit
of an elitist reaction to this, but, yes, I wanted a book that
was accessible. I was not writing for international relations
experts, I was not writing for universities or academics, I did
not want to produce a treatise, if you like, I wanted something
that people would understand and relate to, and so when I started
writing, after 36 years in the Government service I was pretty
conditioned by that, and we are very good friends of Barbara Taylor
Bradford and her husband, Bob Bradford, and, how can I put it,
she helped me achieve a less uptight style, I think is what I
am saying, no more than that, but on content she had nothing to
do with it at all.
Q182 Julie Morgan: So you think she
made the book more readable?
Sir Christopher Meyer: My wife
also played an important role in this, because she read this and
she said, "This is fine. This is dry as toast. Put more of
yourself into it." In fact, one of the big decisions I had
to take when writing, nothing to do with Radcliffe and all that,
was how much of my own personal life to put into the book, and
in the end I decided that because, certainly as far as my time
in Washington was concerned, everything done was done in partnership
with my wife, that we had to bring ourselves personally into the
narrative, and I suppose Barbara Taylor Bradford helped with that.
Q183 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Can I ask
you, Sir Christopher, about your view? I am now looking at the
book. We have got it here. Politicians per se you think
are a pretty bad bunch.
Sir Christopher Meyer: No, I do
not actually. If I could start my life again knowing what I know
Q184 Mr Liddell-Grainger: You would
not be an MP?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I would
go into politics. I really would.
Q185 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Would you?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I really
would. I think it is a fantastic game, I really do, and I regret
that I am now too elderly to be able to do this.
Q186 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Oh, I do
not know, there have been some in the Liberal Democrats at times!
Sir Christopher (and I will not go for the Pygmies, but I am glad
to see you are wearing red socks. I think that is a very reassuring
British tradition), if you look at your comments about the Prime
Minister, your comments about the way that our leaders grip briefs,
et ceterayou went through this war, you have seen it from
the other side, on both sides, from the Americans and from ourswere
you profoundly disturbed with the way this was handled, are you
worried about what is going on and, lastly, were we as a nation
led down the wrong path?
Sir Christopher Meyer: One of
the things I tried to do in this book, to be rigorous, was to
separate what I thought and experienced at the time I was in Washington
from hindsight. I did not want that to be polluted by hindsight,
which is why there is a chapter in the book called War and then
there is a chapter in the book called Hindsight. I started from
the position, which I still hold to, of being a supporter of the
war and of supporting getting rid of Saddam Hussein one way or
other, and I do not resile from that at all. It was apparent at
the time that much more thought was being put into preparing for
the war and the politics of preparing for the war, most of which
was at the United Nations but not entirely, and it was clear that
this was the greater preoccupation when compared with what do
you do when Saddam Hussein is removed. I left Washington at the
end of February 2003. It is only now, with the benefit of hindsight,
that one can see that that greater priority given to the war itself,
as opposed to after the war, is at the route of the difficulties
that we have experienced since the fall of Saddam Hussein. It
was not obvious at the time; it is very, very obvious now; and
you can understand why. I am not in the camp of believing that
the whole thing has been a terrible waste of time and we should
get out as soon as possible. I believe that this has not been
fully played out yet. We have the Iraqi elections today. It is
possible, within a year, a couple of years, that we will have
the kind of stability and democracy in Iraq that we have always
hoped we would have. So it is not the end of the game yet.
Chairman: Can I say to Ian, I do not
want to get into Sir Christopher's views on the war or anything
else for that matter.
Q187 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I thought
I would just take a pop. I come back to the premise that you have
been dealing at the very highest level between two nations. You
have had to deal with a lot of things that Bush and others have
done. In your book you have glossed over a lot of stuff which
you could have perhaps put in about the real relationship. You
have talked about the tittle-tattle, but Bush and Blair, did it
work? Does it work?
Sir Christopher Meyer: There is
a lot of stuff which I could have put in the book and which is
not in the book. If I had been as frank in the book as, say, Bob
Woodward was, and other Americans, in writing about the preparation
for the war as did Woodward's book Plan of Attack, which
benefits from briefings attributable and unattributable from the
President downwards, if I had written something similar over here
I would be talking to you now by video conference from the Tower
of London, I should think.
Q188 Mr Liddell-Grainger: You did
not have strap lines on your dust jacket, though, saying, "This
book could have been franker", did you?
Sir Christopher Meyer: Why on
earth would I have done that?
Mr Liddell-Grainger: Because it would
have been honest.
Sir Christopher Meyer: That is
precisely my question.
Q189 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Is there
going to be DC Confidential 2?
Sir Christopher Meyer: No, there
is certainly not going to be DC confidential, the out-takes or
anything like, there is certainly not going to be PCC Confidential.
Maybe when all this has washed through my system, and I am not
quite sure when that will be, I will write a novel.
Q190 Julia Goldsworthy: Which brings
me on to the point I wanted to ask, which is: what was your motivation
for writing the book? When Lord Wilson of Dinton came to give
us evidence, and you have heard his evidence, he said that there
are basically three main motives for writing political memoirs:
one of them is wanting to set the record straight, the second
is to make money and the third he categorised as vanity or pride.
I wonder which category you see your memoirs falling into.
Sir Christopher Meyer: God only
knows. I have to go back to this very banal beginning for the
whole enterprise. I did not leave the diplomatic service with
a burning desire to write a memoirI never intended to write
a memoir, I did not want to write a memoirbut we did have
this family dinner in the summer of last year where this came
up. It was actually more my children than my wife who said, "For
God's sake write this stuff down before your mind goes, because
each time you tell the story it is slightly different from the
time before." That was the genesis, and then, whatever it
was, a month, two months later, I go and buy an exercise book
in a French supermarket and a six-pack of Bic biros and I sit
on the balcony of our little flat up in the French alps and I
think to myself, "What shall I write?" The rough chronology
is to begin with John Major and end with retirement, and off you
go, and I did not have a structure, I had very unclear ideas where
it would lead, so I cannot tell you. What I thought as I was going
through it was: "At the most this will have some kind of
niche success." I never expected what happened.
Q191 Julia Goldsworthy: Is there
not a difference between maybe writing those things down for your
own personal record and making the decision to publish? You have
talked about how there should be a difference between civil servants
who are in office and those who have retired, but is there not
a difference about publishing this recollection at a time when
many of the key players are still in office themselves? Surely,
if you want that distinction between whether you are in office
or whether you have retired, should there not be a similar principle
applied to whether you should publish when all of these key players
are still in office themselves?
Sir Christopher Meyer: There is
a real debate to be had here, and I recognise that, and I think
the real debate is, and there are many aspects of it, but one
of them, I was very interested in the Hennessey/Wilson exchanges
when those two came before you last month. One of the big things
is actually to decide whether it is more appropriate to write
about people in power while they are in power, or do you let time
go by and wait until they leave power? My personal belief, as
is obvious from the book, is that it is right to write about people
in power, because anything you write or comment on, and God knows
this book is full of all kinds of favourable comments on British
politicians, it is not just negatives, to put it mildly, but there
is a debate to be had: because I can write anything I like, so
can newspapers, but the reputation of politicians does not depend
really on what people like me write, it depends on the view of
them by the people with whom they interact.
Q192 Julia Goldsworthy: Which is
Sir Christopher Meyer: In the
case of the United States, for example, it is a question of who
you deal with when you come over. I can say what I like.
Q193 Julia Goldsworthy: Ultimately
they are publicly accountable and you are putting information
into the public domain?
Sir Christopher Meyer: Yes.
Q194 Julia Goldsworthy: So you are
directly influencing the view in which they are held and they
are publicly accountable, whereas you are not, which is why very
many ministers and special advisors take out all references to
civil servants because they do not have the right to respond.
A lot of what you said earlier is saying that there should be
a universal code which should by applicable to ministers and civil
servants and special advisors, but surely there is a difference
in that ministers, at the very least, are directly accountable?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I think
that you are describing a classic relationship, and I do not think
the classic relationship exists any more, at least it has moved
on a very great deal. I think politicians on leaving office tend
to write their memoirs extremely quickly. In fact one authorised
a biography of himself while he was still in the Cabinet. Almost
by definition these will deal with formulation of policy, and
if it deals with formulation of policy, by definition it deals
with a policy that is submitted to the minister by civil servants.
So, the field has changed, and I think the rules should recognise
that, and that is why I talk about a level playing field.
Q195 Mr Burrowes: So you are essentially
saying if ministers can do it, if they can kiss and tell, then
civil servants can do it likewise? How do you respond to Lord
Turnbull's charge that two wrongs do not make a right?
Sir Christopher Meyer: The question
you have to ask yourself here is are we talking about two wrongs?
We are not necessarily talking about two wrongs. The political
memoir has a very interesting, illuminating and honourable tradition
in British literature, and I think by and large political memoirs
inform and illuminate and this is a very good thing, but we need
Q196 Chairman: We know that, but
we are talking about a book like yours, written by someone like
you at a point in time when you have recently been in office.
Let us take Andrew Turnbull, who was here just now. If he was
to now sit down and produce a book on life inside the Government,
your kind of book, what people said, what he thought of them,
do you think the tradition of public service in Britain would
be well served by that?
Sir Christopher Meyer: It depends
what he wrote.
Q197 Chairman: A book like yours?
Sir Christopher Meyer: Well, I
mean, why not?
Q198 Chairman: You think it would
be well served?
Sir Christopher Meyer: So long
as it goes through the system.
Q199 Chairman: I just want to know?
Sir Christopher Meyer: You keep
on coming back to this.