Bruce Anderson: Meyer's book should have been stopped, but so should the events he describes

We can laugh at Prescott's absurd attempts to retaliate. But Meyer's critics have a point
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The Independent Online

It is easy to see why Mr Prescott was annoyed, when the relevant passages of the Meyer book were read to him. He does not come out well. His arrival in Washington had to be handled as carefully as a consignment of nuclear waste. Chippy, insecure, bad-tempered, he was also pompous and perpetually trying to stand on his non-existent dignity.

Though John Prescott regularly insisted on seeing the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and usually succeeded, he never had anything sensible to say. Mr Cheney must have wondered how and why this awkward, tongue-tied figure had arrived in his office.

John Prescott should never again be allowed to travel abroad on government business; the consequences are too humiliating. As Hamlet said of Polonius: "Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool no where but in's own house". Yet there was a lesson in all this. The Cheney/Prescott meetings are final, indubitable proof that the special relationship does exist. Any relationship which could survive John Prescott's galumphings around the centres of power in Washington must be special.

We can laugh with Christopher Meyer as he describes John Prescott, while also laughing at Mr Prescott's absurd attempts to retaliate. Whatever Chris Meyer is, he is no fop. But his critics have a point. Although his book is fascinating, that is no excuse. Indeed, the more interesting it is, the less justification he has for publishing it.

Unless ministers can think in private, the business of government becomes impossible. In the book, Chris Meyer complains about minor political appointees in the Prime Minister's No 10 entourage whose only value was nuisance value. One can understand why any ambassador would find it trying to have to cope with self-important figures who are a waste of pay and rations. But the solution does not lie in writing a book. On the contrary, that is likely to exacerbate the problem. If ministers came to believe they could not trust officials, they would rely even more heavily on political advisers.

Chris Meyer's book will inevitably undermine trust. This will make life more difficult for serving ambassadors. DC Confidential is the book's title. The author ought to have kept his confidences. As a result of his failure to do so, the rules will have to be tightened. That said, there is still an unexplained mystery. Chris Meyer did submit his book for official clearance and - to his own astonishment, one suspects - received it, in full. This suggests that a number of senior civil servants have become so disillusioned with the Blair Government that they can no longer be bothered to protect its interests.

If so, that was a dereliction of duty. But one can understand why it happened. The Meyer book is further evidence of the extent to which the present Government has devalued the institutions on which the British system of government depends.

The most extraordinary revelation is that during the final 18 months of his time in Washington, Chris Meyer did not have a single serious conversation with the Foreign Office on the secure telephone. There is a clear inference that the FO had ceased to matter, because foreign policy was always made in No 10. In that process, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, a politically appointed private secretary, were both much more important than Jack Straw, the nominal Foreign Secretary.

It could of course be argued that Tony Blair was merely continuing a trend started by Margaret Thatcher. In the mid to late Eighties, she found it increasingly hard to get on with her then foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe. It got to the stage that she could hardly bear to be in the same room as him. When they were going to the same international events, she tried hard not to travel on the same plane as him.

She would be rude to and about Sir Geoffrey in public. I have heard a senior ambassador from that era, who is not a thin-skinned man, say how embarrassing he found it to have to listen to the Prime Minister abusing the foreign secretary, when he was barely out of earshot.

Increasingly, Mrs Thatcher came to rely on Charles Powell, Jonathan Powell's older brother, her foreign affairs private secretary. Still notionally a member of the diplomatic service, Charles Powell became more and more powerful. On an average day, he was merely the PM's de facto national security adviser. On a day when Margaret Thatcher was more than usually exasperated with Geoffrey Howe, Charles Powell was effectively her foreign secretary.

But whatever the effect on Sir Geoffrey's standing, Charles Powell was always careful not to undermine the Foreign Office. It is inconceivable that British ambassadors to Washington such as Robin Renwick would not have had regular conversations with the Foreign Office. However poisoned relations became between the PM and the foreign secretary, the traditional processes of foreign policy still took place.

Under Tony Blair, that is no longer the case, and Christopher Meyer describes some of the consequences. After 11 September, Britain was in a stronger position in Washington than ever before. George Bush felt a profound debt of gratitude, as well as a strong bond of friendship with Tony Blair. The Blair Government was in a unique position to secure advantages for Britain: contracts, a role in the reconstruction of Iraq and unlimited assistance in dealing with Northern Ireland. Yet hardly any of those opportunities were taken. George Bush was in a giving mood, yet Tony Blair never asked for any presents.

Christopher Meyer's conduct has been deplored by serious figures, as well as by John Prescott and Jack Straw. When the author meets senior diplomats, serving and retired, he is likely to receive a chilly reception. Men whose judgement he ought to respect believe he has undermined the ethos of diplomacy and damaged the standing of the Foreign Office. Those are valid points.

That said, the book is of great value to anyone interested in diplomacy and foreign policy. Even those who deplore it will no doubt recommend it to young diplomats. Perhaps we could come to a balanced conclusion. Sir Christopher should not have written his book - and many of the events which he describes should never have taken place.