Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  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 Major's underpants.

  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 now—

  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 cetera—you went through this war, you have seen it from the other side, on both sides, from the Americans and from ours—were 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 memoir—I never intended to write a memoir, I did not want to write a memoir—but 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 the public?

  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 rules.

  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.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 25 July 2006