Sir Christopher Meyer obituary | UK news

Sir Christopher Meyer, who has died aged 78 of a stroke, served as John Major’s press secretary during the Conservative prime minister’s difficult “sleaze” years, and as UK ambassador to the US during 9/11 and the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. He will be best remembered for his indiscreet memoirs, DC Confidential, published in 2005 and serialised in the Guardian and Daily Mail, in which he produced a series of unflattering portraits of senior figures in the Blair government. It was unusual at the time for a civil servant to publish a book so soon after leaving government and to make such caustic personal remarks about ministers.

He spared Gordon Brown, then chancellor, and John Reid, a defence secretary, but said such capable ministers tended to be an exception and “stood out like Masai warriors in a crowd of pygmies”. Among those he was scathing about were the then foreign secretary Jack Straw, another defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, and the deputy prime minister John Prescott. He ridiculed Blair’s Middle East envoy, Lord Levy, for having pretensions to be “a latter-day Kissinger”.

Labour viewed him as unfairly targeting party figures and suspected him of being a closet Conservative. Prescott dismissed Meyer as a “red-socked fop”, a reference to Meyer’s liking, in otherwise conventional attire, for bright coloured socks. Meyer defended himself by saying that politicians could write books about their time in office so he did not see why diplomats could not do the same, and noted that the Cabinet Office had given approval for publication. He said he would hand the serialisation rights to the book to charities, but would keep the royalties.

He was ambassador to Washington from 1997 to 2003, coinciding with the Clinton and Bush administrations. Relations between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were good and this helped Meyer establish his presence in Washington. But he was realistic about the importance of the UK to the US and banned the use around the embassy of the phrase “special relationship”, telling staff that Britain was much less important than a series of other countries. The Blair government had hoped that Clinton would be followed as president by the Democrat Al Gore, but Meyer warned them early on that George W Bush stood a good chance of winning the 2000 election.

Christopher Meyer presenging a bust of Winston Churchill to the US president George W Bush in the Oval Office, 2001.
Christopher Meyer presenting a bust of Winston Churchill to the US president George W Bush in the Oval Office, 2001. Photograph: Greg Mathieson/Mai/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, ordered Meyer in 2001 to get close to the Bush administration: “We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there.” Meyer duly complied, establishing good contacts not only to Bush but also to those close to him, including the then national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, with whom Meyer played tennis, the vice-president Dick Cheney, who was his next-door neighbour, and the defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, with whom he went white-water rafting.

Meyer supported the war in Iraq, but argued in DC Confidential that Blair could have been more forceful in negotiations with Bush and could have persuaded him to delay the invasion to secure a second United Nations resolution. He was also critical of the US for its lack of post-invasion planning. Critics of Meyer quoted Rumsfeld, who had said that the US would have gone ahead with the invasion without the UK if Blair had threatened not to participate. In 2009, giving evidence to the Iraq inquiry led by Sir John Chilcot, Meyer made the case again, saying Blair had become so close to Bush that he effectively gave the US president a blank cheque for the invasion. Some of Meyer’s animus towards the Blair government seems to have been because he felt that at times he was cut out of the circle, with Blair dealing directly with Bush.

Meyer was born in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. His father, Reginald, was in the RAF during the second world war and was killed in action in Greece in 1944, 13 days before his son was born. Christopher was raised by his mother, Eve, and a grandmother before being sent to boarding school at Lancing College in West Sussex, which he said later he hated for the first three years, but conceded had made him self-sufficient. He studied in Paris before going to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he graduated with a degree in history. He went on to study at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy.

Christopher Meyer, left, and the US chief of protocol Donald Ensenat, right, greeting the UK prime minister Tony Blair on his arrival in the US in 2002 for a meeting with President George W Bush at Camp David.
Christopher Meyer, left, and the US chief of protocol Donald Ensenat, right, greeting the UK prime minister Tony Blair on his arrival in the US in 2002 for a meeting with President George W Bush at Camp David. Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP

In 1966 he joined the Foreign Office and, having studied Russian, went to Moscow for his first posting before serving in Madrid, Brussels and then another stint in Moscow.

He was co-opted in 1994 to become Major’s press officer. It was a challenging time, with the Conservatives beset by a series of scandals and the prime minister regularly ridiculed. Major was especially sensitive to press criticism but Meyer failed to persuade him either to stop reading the papers or to stop taking the criticism so personally. Meyer’s dry sense of humour helped him through many awkward lobby briefings.

He was rewarded for his efforts as press secretary in 1997 with an ambassadorship to Germany before moving later that year to Washington. A year later, he was knighted.

Soon after his return from Washington he was made chairman of the UK’s Press Complaints Commission, serving from 2003 to 2009. During his tenure he avoided tackling many difficult issues such as phone-hacking, which he said fell outside his remit.

After the PCC, he wrote and spoke on international affairs and fronted TV documentaries that included a six-part series, Networks of Power (2012), about what he saw as the world’s most influential cities and their powerbrokers. In an interview with the Guardian in 2012, he denied he was only interested in powerful people, not ordinary lives. He responded in the characteristically robust way in which he dealt with lobby journalists. “Many powerful people are boring as shit,” he declared.

He is survived by his second wife, Catherine (nee Laylle), whom he married in 1997, and by two sons, James and William, from his first marriage, to Françoise (nee Winskill), which ended in divorce.

Christopher John Rome Meyer, diplomat, born 22 February 1944; died 27 July 2022

Leave a Comment