NS Profile - The Meyers

Gone are the Bentley and servants, but the diplomatic team who stormed Washington are destined to re

Two photographs take pride of place on the mantelpiece of the Meyer household. One shows the couple with "George and Laura" - the Bushes. The other shows them standing next to Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Down a few steps in a cramped alcove on the way to the garden, there is another picture, of the Meyers with a gaunt Tony Blair during the Washington summit last January. What does the tour of his flat in South Kensington say about Britain's former ambassador to Washington?

Sir Christopher and Lady Catherine Meyer are not quite slumming it, but they are getting used to more humble surroundings now that they are back in the UK. Gone is the Lutyens residence. Gone is the Bentley. Gone is the phalanx of servants. But the pair will remain in the limelight and have already become fixtures on the London circuit. She has set herself up as a campaigner for a referendum on the new European Constitution.

As head of the Press Complaints Commission, he is returning to his old sparring relationship with the fourth estate, one that he savours. Meyer cultivates a loyal but detached relationship with his masters. He did so when serving as John Major's spokesman in the early 1990s. He would defend the Prime Minister, but the twinkle in his eye suggested that he was just doing his job. The same seems to apply with Blair. Although Meyer supported the war in Iraq throughout, he admits that the diplomacy was a collective failure. The presentation strategy, he has told friends, "went off-beam", particularly the use of the various intelligence dossiers, which he deems a bad mistake.

As for Alastair Campbell and his war with the BBC, Meyer just cannot understand it. All governments have had problems with the corporation. All governments have had problems with the "lobby", the political hacks who inhabit the Westminster village. Meyer would brief them twice a day from inside Downing Street (now they are banished a half-mile up the road), regarding those encounters as the best part of his job. He had none of the back- up, no "rebuttal unit", no "lines to take". He wasn't even sent the papers the night before, having instead to rely on the local newsagent in Putney, south-west London, to bring them round as a special favour at 6.30am. Meyer does not buy the new conventional wisdom that press cynicism is polluting the political process. He believes the UK's media are robust and vibrant. He has lived and worked in six other countries and says he would not swap British journalism for theirs: "I have lived through this on the other side of the line. I'm not saying the press is perfect, but I truly believe ministers complain too much about this."

In the Press Complaints Commission, Meyer inherits a body urgently in search of credibility. He insists he will continue its light touch, but has already shown new mettle, upholding complaints against the Sun and the Guardian in quick succession. He is now about to investigate the Daily Mirror for paying Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer jailed for manslaughter, for his story. Behind the jollity and camaraderie, there is some steel.

Meyer quit Major's side in January 1996 as his government was self-destructing. He left his post in Washington (via a week's holiday in Las Vegas) at one of the most crucial points in US-British relations, less than a month before the Iraq war. He left a hiatus that is only now about to be filled by Sir David Manning, Blair's right-hand man in Downing Street. Some in Whitehall wonder whether Meyer didn't bale out for tactical reasons. The truth is that he had already extended his stay and had previously agreed his starting date at the PCC. But resentment lingers.

Meyer's combination of traditional English sang-froid with a dash of Cool Britannia enabled him to glide effortlessly from the Tories to new Labour. He arrived in Germany just before the 1997 election fearing that Blair might axe his top ambassadors. Within weeks, he was offered Washington.

He won the trust of the people who mattered in Washington. His judgement was smart. He shifted from Democrats to Republicans with similar aplomb. He quickly identified Bush as a potential president and got to know him and the neoconservatives around him. In so doing, he bought valuable time and brownie points for Blair. At any of the Meyers' black-tie soirees, the Clintons could be sighted, or the veteran TV anchor Barbara Walters or the "Douglases", or Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve. Meyer would regularly have Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser and gatekeeper, over to the residence for a spot of tennis. As for the Bushes, not many ambassadors are granted an intimate dinner in the president's private apartment to mark their departure.

Meyer combines an establishment education (Lancing Col- lege and Peterhouse, Cambridge) and a career of 36 years in the diplomatic service with unconventional mannerisms. His bright red socks have been his trademark. But it is his private life that has set him apart from the average ambassador. Personal anguish brought Christopher and Catherine together. She was in a desperate state, lobbying a number of governments for help in gaining custody of her two sons in Germany. Alexander and Constantin are now 18 and 16. She has seen them for only 25 hours since their father abducted them in 1994. Her legal battle for access has cost her house and her job.

Hers has been a very public battle. She has written a book about it. She tried to enlist the help of No 10 and the Foreign Office. Even after securing a parliamentary debate on her plight in July 1995, her campaign was swallowed up by Whitehall bureaucracy. The British embassy in Bonn had a file on this potential troublemaker. It was with some trepidation that it granted her a meeting with the incoming ambassador. She arrived late, but as soon as she walked in the room, Meyer told his officials he wanted to see her alone. He later joked that as he couldn't help in her predicament with her sons, he did "the second best thing and married her instead". For six months, they tried to keep their relationship secret from the German authorities and from the Foreign Office. He said to himself throughout that he "must be mad".

They married in October 1997, just before flying out to Washington. There, they took the circuit by storm, but their public displays of affection were not to everyone's taste. "They were embarrassingly in love, like teenagers," recalls one diplomat. Some people resented Catherine's public profile, especially her use of her position to further her charity, Parents and Abducted Children Together. She was never short of an opinion, and used to be driven mad by her husband's inability to venture one. She would argue that the role of consorts like her was undervalued. After all, she was the one who had to sit next to and schmooze the president or the vice-president over dinner - not him. She would complain that the Foreign Office should provide ambassadors' wives with a bigger clothing allowance. She insists it was her intervention - via the wife of Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader at the time - that saved the Scottish cashmere wool industry from punitive tariffs.

Now Catherine is turning her attention to Europe, but she is adamant that her job as co-chair of Vote 2004 (which she shares with the Labour MP Frank Field) is misunderstood. She is, she says, no Eurosceptic. It is true that few come more pan-European - half French, half Russian - than she. One side of her family hails from St Petersburg; one of her grandfathers fought in the White Army against the Bolsheviks. They fled to China. Her mother ended up in Thailand and Vietnam, where she met a French naval officer who had been imprisoned while fighting the Japanese. He left her, but she ended up with another French naval officer. They moved during the Allied occupation to Germany, where Catherine was born in Baden-Baden. She spent her teenage years in London, mostly in South Kensington, going to the nearby French Lycee. A fluent speaker of five languages, she says she sees herself most of all as a Londoner, and a British citizen by choice.

Her husband, meanwhile, is busy reacquainting himself with his country, touring the regions to meet newspaper editors. He has already been linked with a number of jobs, such as heading London's 2012 Olympic bid, but he insists he is happy as the part-time chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. He says he does not miss the high life, and is proud to be the holder of a taxi-cab account and a Tube season ticket. After the Bushes and the Douglases, adjudicating on the miscreants of the newspaper world doesn't quite have the same cachet.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2003 issue of the New Statesman, War on truth