Sir Christopher Meyer, who has died suddenly in France at the age of 78, was a waspish and patriotic intellectual and a consummate British diplomat. His company was one of the great bonuses for those of us covering politics and diplomacy from the 1980s onward. While remaining utterly loyal to his successive political masters and mistresses, he was no spin doctor. He knew what he was talking about, and he did not see why the British public should not be informed by journalists, fully briefed by him.
I have known Chris since 1984 when he was press secretary to the then Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe. After years of missed invitations during the Covid Years, our last contact was indirect. I was pleased to stand in for him last weekend at the Buxton Festival in a panel discussion on The Presidents, a book to which we both contributed chapters — his a sparkling personal memoir of George W Bush, mine on the more obscure Warren G Harding.
In the 1980s, the two great Ministries of State, the Foreign Office and HM Treasury appointed rising civil servants rather than media professionals as spokespeople. It was usually a rung on the ladder to the very top for the likes of Gus O’Donnell, who passed through the Treasury press office on the way to Cabinet Secretary. Chris went on to serve as UK ambassador to Germany and the United States.
At international summits, such as the G7 or EU, the spokesmen for the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister would hold regular open briefings, sometimes two or three times a day, when negotiations were tense. Sir Bernard Ingham, representing Mrs Thatcher, and Chris, became an unmissable double act, especially for foreign journalists whose delegations were usually much less forthcoming.
Bernard relished bluntly delivering home truths to his listeners. At a Commonwealth Summit in Canada where Thatcher was, as usual, on the ropes over sanctions against South Africa, the pair delighted in telling sanctimonious Canadian reporters, accurately, that their country’s percentage volume of trade with the Apartheid regime was actually greater than Great Britain’s.
Chris also liked to shock with stinging witticisms, even risqué ones. Sensitive souls reached for the smelling salts when he described Prime Minister Thatcher’s latest warm meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev as “another Gorbasm”.
In 1993 he took over from Gus O’Donnell as Prime Minister John Major’s press secretary. This was the era before Alastair Campbell invented civil servants who were put up as “Prime Minister’s Official Spokespeople”, largely because they were out of the loop and could reveal little, while the true Head of Media operated off the record and in the shadows.
Chris was a senior official who knew what was going on and, within obvious constraints, passed it on to journalists. His briefings could be surprisingly frank, even intimate. He sometimes referred to his two growing sons from his first marriage, and he frequently joked about the comparatively modest salaries enjoyed by public servants.
This was the time when the colourful hosiery on his elegantly crossed legs first came to public attention. Behind the barbs and cynicism, his humanity and genuine concern were evident to those he came to know, from the Prime Minister down to political hacks. He thought journalism mattered and wrote a blueprint of how he thought the government should interact with the media during sabbatical periods at Harvard.
Christopher’s earlier Foreign Office postings made him a European and, especially, a Russian specialist. He dreamt his career might climax as our man in Moscow. Instead, in 1997, he was the surprise appointment as the Ambassador to Germany after a kerfuffle when a more obviously qualified diplomat turned down the post as insufficiently senior.
The post-unification Federal government had not yet fully completed its transfer to Berlin, so the newly knighted Sir Christopher Meyer went to Bonn on his own. During his time in Germany, Catherine Meyer, a British citizen of French and Russian heritage, approached him about her tug-of-love case. With the full backing of German domestic law her ex-husband, a German Doctor, was blocking her access to their two sons.
He wasn’t in Germany for long. That same year the new Prime Minister and his team came to the former hospital, which served as the British Embassy in Germany. Tony Blair, Jonathan Powell, Anji Hunter and Alastair Campbell were all impressed by the visit organised by Sir Christopher. In spite of his loyal service to two consecutive Conservative prime ministers, they hit it off well. Number Ten decided to send Meyer to Washington DC in the vacancy created by the return of Sir John Kerr to the UK.
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Meyer’s stint in Washington coincided with the switch from the Democratic President Clinton to the Republican George W Bush, via the tied “hanging chad” 2000 election. As he liked to recall, Number Ten’s instructions to the Ambassador were to “get up the arse of the new administration and stay there.” A feat he pulled off with great skill despite his increasingly strained relations with the Foreign Office back home.
His networking was greatly assisted by his new wife, Catherine Meyer. As her own personal circumstances resolved, she and Meyer set up a charity PACT — Parents and Abducted Children Together — to help others in similar circumstances. Campaigning made “Cat” a passionate Brexiteer and would bring her into close contact with then Home Secretary Theresa May. Prime Minister May subsequently made Baroness Meyer a peer, much to the delight of Sir Christopher.
Ambassador Meyer was a vital point man with the Bush Administration after the 9/11 attacks when the US and UK governments were in perhaps closer alignment than ever before. He was a tireless advocate of Blair’s attempt to get a second resolution at the United Nations, explicitly endorsing the invasion of Iraq. He was convinced that the UK would succeed. In the tense months of early 2003, before President Chirac made it clear that he would veto any such resolution, Chris told me “the Frogs always come round in the end”. He was wrong.
By now, Sir Christopher had heart trouble, but the Foreign Office would not sanction treatment in the US, even though there was an ambassadorial health insurance policy in place. He had to resign instead and return to England as a private citizen for the necessary operation. Incredibly, British bureaucratic parsimony resulted in there being no British Ambassador in the US for more than a year at the height of the controversial Iraq conflict.
Some understandable bitterness came out in his unusually frank memoir DC Confidential published in 2005. He always pointed out that the book went through normal vetting procedures, but some of his colleagues in government were outraged by his undiplomatic disclosures. Foremost amongst them was Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, whose garbled language and reference to entities such as “The Balklands” had left Americans bemused, according to the Ambassador. Prescott attacked Meyer as a “red-socked fop”, Meyer promptly made @sirsocks his Twitter handle.
Liberated at last from the shackles of officialdom, Christopher and Cat Meyer kept up a well-connected social life, in spite of a series of property disasters in London. He became an in-demand and outspoken author and broadcaster, including a six-part documentary series for Sky called Networks of Power. His most recent work Only Child on Amazon Kindle was more personal, including an account of how his father, Reginald, was killed in action during the Second World War, 13 days before Christopher was born.
In the course of my work, I have been lucky to get to know several diplomats of wit, distinction and integrity; Christopher Meyer will always be unique among them.