Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)



  Q200  Chairman: With respect, this is the fundamental point. We are concerned with what this means for the conduct of government in this country. I am asking you whether you think that the conduct of government would be improved if a recently retired cabinet secretary wrote a book like yours?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: The answer is, depending on what he wrote, it could be.

  Q201  Mr Prentice: On this point, on page 77 of your book you say: "There was a minority of capable ministers"—that is ministers who went to Washington—"who stood out like Masai warriors in a crowd of Pygmies". If Andrew Turnbull wrote his memoirs and said the same thing, that would be okay. That is just par for the course. Things have moved on?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I can think of few things less likely than Andrew Turnbull writing a book like that.

  Q202  Mr Prentice: He is a different person from you, is he not?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Yes. One has to say, he presided over precisely the system of Cabinet Office clearance—

  Mr Prentice: I have gone through all that.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I want to go back to it, because for me it is primordial.

  Q203  Mr Prentice: I asked you questions about the process and you responded and it is on the record. The fundamental thing is that there are lots of people out there who think this was a fundamental breach of trust, a breach of confidence, and you told the Independent on Sunday on the thirteenth of last month, and I quote, "Give me a break." That is what you said: "Give me a break about breach of trust. It is all about double standards." That is the point, is it not, that because politicians publish memoirs you think civil servants, diplomats, drawing huge pensions for their time in public service, should publish kiss and tell memoirs. You think it is okay?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not recall that my huge pension is on such as favourable terms as those of MPs.

  Q204  Mr Prentice: Sixty thousand, is it, that you get?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: That is my business. I have now lost track of the question.

  Chairman: Confidential impact.

  Q205  Mr Prentice: I was talking about breach of trust and double standards, just to remind you?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Yes. Okay. The purpose of that remark in that interview—it goes back to the point that you were just discussing—I believe that at the beginning of the twenty-first century in an age of the Freedom of Information Act, open government and memoirs spewing out of politicians, most of which are quite interesting, there has to be a level playing field, there has to be a consistent and clear set of rules. At the moment, based on my experience with the Radcliffe criteria and the rules, all I can say is it all seems to be confusion and inconsistency.

  Q206  Julia Goldsworthy: So you think there is a public interest in the material that you published?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I do.

  Q207  Julia Goldsworthy: So you think there is a public interest in us knowing that Tony Blair was wearing "ball-crushingly tight trousers"? Who is the judge of what public interest is? I notice in your letter to Michael Jay on 7 August you say, "I've spent much of my time at the Press Complaints Commission making judgments about the public interest. A powerful consideration in this process is the public's right to know. There is no intrinsic reason why a group of civil servants should be a better judge of it than one individual." Surely there is no intrinsic reason why one person should be a better judge than a group of civil servants in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: You have to remember the background to that debate, but let me take your first point, and I must not forget my second point. The first point in all of this—"ball-crushingly tight trousers"—is it really not possible, is it really considered unethical, is it really considered intolerable that a piece of clothing on public display noticed by God knows how many journalists at the time and I am forbidden from commenting on it. When we are talking public interest, it has got nothing to do with ball-crushingly tight trousers really; it has got something to do with this, and you may disagree with what I am about to say, but, if you are talking about Tony Blair, there are four conclusions that can be drawn from my book.

  Q208  Julia Goldsworthy: When you were a diplomat there is no way you would have publicly commented on Tony Blair's dress?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Wouldn't I?

  Julia Goldsworthy: You would not have made that comment.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Who would I have been talking to? I mean, certainly to the Downing Street retinue I said, "Cor, blimey, look at those trousers." I did. I remember doing that.

  Mr Prentice: It gets worse.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Public interest. If you talk about Tony Blair and the Iraq war, and it goes back to your question, Mr Liddell-Grainger, Tony Blair did not lie in 2002, Tony Blair was not Bush's poodle, Tony Blair came to the war with a high moral purpose and Tony Blair in his actions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo probably saved thousands of lives. I think it is of public interest for someone like me to be able to say that. You want people to read the book, so that is where you throw in pieces of colour.

  Q209  Chairman: Tony Blair particularly wanted you as our man in Washington, did he not?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: He appointed me.

  Q210  Chairman: No, he put in hand arrangements to ensure that it happened. He plucked you out of Bonn, did he not?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I was pulled out of Bonn, yes, after seven months.

  Q211  Chairman: I have read your book; I know what went on. You tell us that he wanted you. You were his man. Do you think you have repaid that trust?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I think I have done something which, above all, needed to be said on behalf of the Prime Minister. The single most damaging criticism, in my view, levelled at him in the run up to the Iraq war was that he had deliberately misled the British people, that he had lied. You hear that accusation expressed even more sharply on the other side of the Atlantic, particularly in the light of leaks that have appeared in the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Times over the last two years. The most important thing I have done vis-a"-vis the Prime Minister is to say that from my vantage point, from what I saw, he did not lie, and I think that is important.

  Q212  Chairman: We have got to end there. Can I take you back to where we started. You are having that conversation in the South of France and I am still struck by the fact that you did not even raise a question about whether it might be proper to write a book of this kind. The fact that people like us clearly have doubts about whether it was proper, those of us, indeed, who were most vociferous in wanting freedom of information legislation have doubts about the propriety of what you did, the fact that you did not even weigh these considerations in the balance, so that when people tell you afterwards, people who I imagine you would respect, that this was not a thing that you should have done, that its consequences will be bad for the business of government—

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I think we can have an honest difference of view about this, and I do not agree with you. The conversation, which actually took place in South Kensington rather than the South of France, which was the launch of the book, almost immediately, when I started to think about it, the judgment I had to make was what should I put in and what should I take out? From the autumn of 2004 onwards I was talking to colleagues in the Foreign Office. I did not conceal my intentions. Some of them helped me with points of detail where my memory failed. This was all done in an entirely open way. When you write a book you get so close to the text, after a while it is very, very hard to judge whether it is sensational, boring or whatever, so you show it to other people, and you show it to the Cabinet Office, and the Cabinet Office has the Radcliffe criteria, and in this case I was led to believe that the book had been cleared. Now I have no idea whether the government considered the book was cleared and what is certainly true is that, if you read the written answer to your question, Mr Prentice, from the Foreign Secretary—

  Q213  Mr Prentice: I have many times?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: There you are, it is a lucid as mud.

  Q214  Chairman: It is funny that it does not seem obscure to us. It seems absolutely straightforward what you were required to do if you contemplated writing about your time in office, and you did not do it.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: What did I not do?

  Q215  Chairman: You did not go and say, "I am planning to do this. What do you think about it? This is my publishing proposition." You did none of this, and to wriggle around suggesting that somehow all this fuss is because of the obscurity of the regulations just will not wash.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Chairman, you have to get into the real world here. There are plenty of people in the Foreign Office who knew I was writing a book. If you are in the service, you are actually working inside the Foreign Office, almost by definition, because it means you are going to have to go on a sabbatical or something, you will formally go to your head of department or the PUS, or whatever, and say, "I am writing a book", or "I want to write a book", and you will get authority or you will not get authority. When you are outside and you are planning to write a memoir, and I think you will get a very similar answer from Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who I believe you are calling next year, all you can say to people is, "I am going to write a memoir", and they will say to you, "Make damn sure you let us see the manuscript before publication", obviously.

  Q216  Chairman: If someone had said to Lord Radcliffe 30 years ago, looking at all this in the wake of Crossman, that he might be dealing with a situation where a former ambassador, within a couple of years of leaving office, would write this kind of book about the people that he was dealing with, the politicians that came his way, the events that they were engaged in, in this kind of intimate personal way, he would have thought it unthinkable that a public servant would have behaved in that way, and therefore it would not be necessary to craft intricate regulations to stop them behaving in a way that would just be, as I say, unthinkable. Is that not the measure of what has happened?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: No, it is not the measure of what has happened, Chairman, and I rather resent what you say. I think that Lord Radcliffe, God knows, I am no more able to get inside his head than you are, I think, but I think he will certainly recognise that things move on over a period of time which is more than a generation and I think that he would be disturbed that the very criteria which he himself established were not being used to judge publications that were being put into the system.

  Q217  Chairman: What Radcliffe says is, "We asked ourselves very seriously the question whether, with all the pressure of the day in favour of openness of government and public participation in the formation of public policies, the principle itself which enjoins confidentiality in all that goes to the internal formulation of government policy ought to be regarded as an outmoded and undesirable restriction. We always came round to the same answer. It is necessary and it ought to be observed?".

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I agree.

  Q218  Chairman: It ought to be observed because of the conduct of the Government itself. That is why he would have thought this behaviour unthinkable?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not know whether he would have thought his behaviour was unthinkable, but I do not dispute that you need confidentiality and that you need a duty of confidentiality. The problem, Chairman, lies in its definition and in its application. That is the problem.

  Q219  Mr Prentice: Very briefly on the Press Complaints Commission, you told us that you are hanging on in there, that you have had thousands of expressions of support, that you are not going to be writing PCC confidential and that the PCC is reviewing the rules following the publication of your book. If there were a vacancy now as Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, do you think you would be a credible candidate?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: What an extraordinary question. I think, yes.

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