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Sunday 13 November 2005

Meyer's enthralling book written as an act of pure revenge

IT WAS when I was a civil servant that I first received the advice: "Don't get mad, get even." This was clearly an adage Sir Christopher Meyer took to heart during his time at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. And boy, in DC Confidential, which is published this week, has he got even.

I met him in 1993 when he was Deputy Head of Mission in Washington and he was the very model of a cultivated, charming diplomat. Less cultivated and less charming, because so obviously arrogant, was the very much more junior Jonathan Powell.

Four years later, Meyer, newly appointed Ambassador to the US, was taking orders from Powell, now Chief of Staff to the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair. "We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there," explained Powell.

Downing Street ignored the Foreign Office and called all the shots on British-American relations. Though Meyer saw the strengths of Blair, Powell and Alastair Campbell, he rapidly became disenchanted.

Blair was a brilliant performer, but unlike Margaret Thatcher and John Major, he had no grasp of detail and no appetite for negotiation. Both Bill Clinton and George Bush were well briefed and outclassed him. For Blair, staying up the arse of the White House seemed to be an end in itself.

A telling example is Meyer's attempt to get Blair to stop Clinton imposing import duties that would destroy the Scottish cashmere industry and thousands of jobs. He was rebuked "for allowing such a bread-and-butter matter to intrude into their exalted exchanges". It was his first experience of the reluctance of Number 10 "to hammer on the hard detail".

Later, Meyer would come to believe that Blair consistently threw all his cards away when dealing with American presidents. He could, believed Meyer, have had a profound impact on the timing of the invasion of Iraq, on the securing of more allies and on the making of well-thought-out post-invasion plans, but Blair preferred to offer free and unconditional support to an ally who would willingly have paid a high price for it.

As he has consistently shown in Northern Ireland, Blair may be a charmer, but his grasp of issues is shallow and he's a lousy negotiator. By contrast, says Meyer, Major, whom he served as press secretary, "immersed himself in the history of the province, excelled at tough negotiation and was impervious to physical danger".

Meyer does not stint on gossip. He came to loathe the "finger-wagging self-importance" of Number 10's minor functionaries, "an odious species that seemed to infest the Blair entourage".

One such functionary explained to him that Bush's victory had gone down very badly in Downing Street. "Cherie was so upset. After all, hadn't Al Gore really won?"

"Get over it," I said. "Bush is President and that's that."

The late Robin Cook ("a man more to be admired than liked"), was an effective performer as Foreign Secretary, while, until he found his feet, Jack Straw ("someone more to be liked than admired") was "mystifyingly tongue-tied" and "amiable but stumbling".

Though Meyer liked John Prescott and thought he had a sharp political brain, Prescott thought him "a pin-striped toff" and arrived at the embassy "with his hackles up, waiting to be 'dissed'". Things did not improve when a nervous Prescott began gabbling to a senator about the "Balklands" and "Kovosa". The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, was so frightened of Donald Rumsfeld that "it was like getting pandas to mate".

Mo Mowlam comes out well for her ability to relate to Irish-America: she electrified and ultimately charmed the House Committee on Ireland by addressing Sinn Fein groupie Congressman Peter King with, "Up yours, King!" accompanied by a V-sign.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness "moved through Washington as smoothly as sharks in warm water," while "there was something terribly awkward and admirable about the likes of David Trimble, Seamus Mallon, John Alderdice and the others who were Sinn Fein's political opponents."

What completely alienated Meyer was his increasingly shabby treatment by Number 10. "Tony would rather have Alastair at the supper with Bush than you," explained Powell as the Blair entourage was en route to Washington.

Feeling as if he'd been punched in the stomach, the normally urbane diplomat responded: "If this happens, you will cut me off at the f**king knees for the rest of my f**king time in Washington. Is that what you want?" It was Condoleezza Rice who saved his face by insisting he should be present.

Meyer has broken the convention that senior civil servants do not break confidences, lest their successors lose the trust of ministers. His enthralling book was written as an act of pure revenge. As one of my ex-colleagues and I agreed the other day, he should not have written it, but we're delighted he did.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards