DC Confidential, by Christopher Meyer

Secrets of a smug smoothie
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The title of this book suggests that sensational secrets are to be spilled. In case there is any doubt, the sub-title proclaims the provocative intent: "The Controversial Memoirs Of Britain's Ambassador to the US At The Time of 9/11 And The Iraq War". In a pre-emptive strike, the publishers celebrate breathlessly the book's controversy in advance.

The subsequent stormy reaction plays into their hand. Senior ministers and former mandarins have expressed outrage, arguing that Sir Christopher should not have written the book. He was a privileged diplomat betraying recent confidences. In particular the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has fumed. In the book Straw is described as likeable, but mediocre in comparison with Robin Cook who is portrayed as dazzlingly competent and not likeable.

The descriptions of the former and current foreign secretary are typical. These hopeless elected politicians come and go. The unelected Sir Christopher is always there, ready to sneer at ministers that are, in his view, out of their depths. For much of the book Meyer plays the glamorous host in Washington. The ministers have a country to run, a political party to satisfy and the noisy British media to deal with. Sir Christopher has little more to cope with than to shake hands with the latest guest at his grandly ornate residence in Washington. Apparently this equips him to regard the elected ministers as figures of fun.

These descriptions also demonstrate that parts of the political establishment have stirred for the wrong reasons. Secret revelations are not the unprincipled crime of the book, not least because Meyer reveals little that is new. Contemporary politicians and advisers publish their memoirs or diaries. He is entitled to publish if he wants to do so. The questions whirling around his right to publish are the wrong ones. He has a more difficult one to address: Who the hell does he think he is to mock his victims with such a lofty disdain?

Meyer has had some interesting roles and proved to be a colourful personality in each of them, but he shows no comprehension of the complex demands facing the politicians he treats with ridicule. John Prescott is an easy hit and sure enough the predictable observations are made. Ho,ho,ho, Prescott refers to "Kovosa" in a conversation with Dick Cheney. Straw is tongue-tied in the presence of lightweights in the Bush administration. Back in London and a few years earlier, John Major protests about the newspapers in his pyjamas. What a laugh they are.

The description of Blair and the dilemmas he faced in the build-up to the war against Iraq suffer from the same simplistic analysis. From Meyer's perspective it all seemed fairly straightforward. In his view, Blair was right to back the war, but failed to use his influence over President Bush, especially in planning for the aftermath. Where is his evidence that Blair had much scope to exert influence? Blair did manage to persuade Bush to seek international backing for the conflict, but only on the understanding that Britain would still support the war if the UN failed to dance to their tunes. Blair also sought and got, fleetingly, a new presidential focus on the Middle East peace process. But the divided Bush administration was not easy to negotiate with. Colin Powell was receptive to a more open dialogue. Most of the others were not.

More importantly, Meyer fails to recognise the domestic pressures facing Blair in the run up to war. Blair was too busy trying to persuade Labour MPs, sceptical voters and the UN about the necessity for invasion. He had no time to challenge Bush about the inadequate preparations for the aftermath.

Meyer is in no position to make the more obvious point. Blair took a premature and wrong decision to back a war that had not been clearly thought through. From the moment Blair pledged his support to Bush he was trapped and had to spend the next 18 months convincing the British electorate that the war was "the right thing to do". As Meyer was a supporter of the war, he would have been trapped as well.

Meyer's observations are important for a single reason. They explain vividly how Blair became trapped. He records how Blair and his entourage were intoxicated by their closeness to Bush. Evidently they could hardly believe that they were there, players on the biggest stage of them all. After 18 years out of power, Blair was determined to show he could do business with a republican president. Old Labour was perceived as anti-American so he would be the most pro-American Prime Minister of the lot. He got into trouble for seeking to purge Labour of its partly imaginary past.

For this reason alone, a lightweight showman has done his bit for the special relationship. After reading this book, no Prime Minister will seek to be so uncritically close to the United States again.

Steve Richards is chief political commentator for 'The Independent'