Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200
THURSDAY 15 DECEMBER 2005
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
Sir Christopher Meyer: I can think
of few things less likely than Andrew Turnbull writing a book
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
Mr Prentice: I have gone through all
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
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 interviewit goes back
to the point that you were just discussingI 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.