Our man in Washington. Christopher Meyer was always more loathed than liked by many in the Foreign Office. His memoirs show him to be a star-struck egomaniac who is still in denial about his marginal role in the build-up to Iraq. By Ed Owen

DC Confidential

Christopher Meyer <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 288pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0297851144

The sight of the British establishment laying into someone who has broken the rules of the game is rarely a pretty sight - and few can have suffered such unanimous vitriol as Sir Christopher Meyer has done over recent weeks. Yet, for those determined to sympathise with the embattled former ambassador as an unfortunate victim of a malevolent system, I have one piece of advice: do not read his book.

Meyer was always a man more loathed than liked, more despised than admired, by many of his former colleagues at the Foreign Office. He was often described as arrogant and conceited, more interested in self-promotion than serious work. I felt that much of this criticism was unfair and reflected both the intense competitiveness within the senior ranks of the diplomatic service and an instinctive institutional distrust of individuals who did things differently.

I actually quite liked the guy. In the early part of my time at the Foreign Office, I accompanied Jack Straw on regular trips to Washington. Jack was keen to build a strong relationship with his opposite number Colin Powell, and I would use the opportunity to get to know some of the interesting political players on the Hill and in the Democrats. I also enjoyed chatting with Meyer about US politics and his past working at No 10 as John Major's press secretary.

Yet I am afraid these memoirs - with their ridiculously pompous title - do little to undermine the judgement of the King Charles Street elite. Meyer's account of his seven years in Washington is often breathtaking, not for its insight or analysis (there is precious little of either), nor for its stirring prose, but for its brazen chutzpah. Indeed, a reader uninformed about the detail of much of the history of this period would be forgiven for believing that our man in the US was solely responsible for holding together the transatlantic alliance - and much more besides.

That this was achieved was, according to the Meyer view, in spite of the frequently deliberate and determined opposition of a range of enemies including the Foreign Office ("dumb", "careless" or irrelevant), British ministers ("pygmies" and, it seems, an encumbrance to the ambassador's work), No 10 staff ("an odious species"), assorted Europhiles and the French. Problems that did arise between the UK and US during his time in Washington emerged largely because London - that is, No 10 or the Foreign Office - refused to heed his expert advice.

In Meyer's account, only one person is worthy of even greater praise than himself - his wife, Lady Catherine. She is attributed with having both single-handedly saved the Scottish cashmere industry from a damaging trade war and predicted the collapse of Enron. She even contributes to changing the US administration's view of Vladimir Putin by informing Condi Rice, a renowned expert on Russia, that the Russian president was "an attractive man who walked like an athlete".

I must confess to have been utterly oblivious to Lady Meyer's impact on world affairs until I read this book, although I do recall the collective groan that would go up as we were repeatedly told by grinning US legislators - from the old to the octogenarian - how their admiration for Sir Christopher was surpassed only by their regard for his attractive wife.

But Meyer's obvious devotion to his wife is perhaps the most endearing aspect of his memoirs. Much of the rest is depressingly superficial, sometimes bordering on what I can only describe as the Glenda Slagg school of diplomatic memoirs. The dismissive comments on British politicians were presumably added to give the book's serialisation a more newsy edge. But when it comes to US politicians, Meyer fawns as if he were star-struck.

Many were wined and dined at the ambassador's residence; others became, we are told, "firm friends" of the golden couple. Dick Cheney is described as "affable and drily humorous". Jesse Helms, the right-wing senator and hate figure of US Democrats, was a "frequent visitor" to the ambassador's residence and was "unflinching in the kindness and support that he showed Catherine". Trent Lott, then Republican leader in the Senate, is described as one of "Catherine's heroes". The Meyers' friendship with Karl Rove, presidential adviser, "endures to this day".

The most slavish praise is reserved for George W Bush himself, who is described as being "smart as a whip" (whatever that means). At one point Meyer tells us that he "felt the president's pain" over something and, in a rare bout of introspective honesty, the red-socked diplomat fears that he sounded like an "obsequious courtier" in Bush's presence.

Strangely, there is little criticism of Bush over Iraq. Yet, in now predictable fashion, Meyer seeks to suggest that many of the problems encountered could have been avoided if only the British Prime Minister had listened to his ambassador more.

The truth, however, is that Meyer was rarely bigger than a marginal figure on the issue. Most of the "heavy lifting" was done by direct communication between the two governments through Rice and David Manning (then the Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser, now Meyer's successor in Washington), Straw and Powell, and - of course - Bush and Blair.

This may explain why much of Meyer's detail of the run-up to war is confused and incomplete. Documenting events in the summer of 2002, he complains that Blair is making no headway in persuading Bush to go to the United Nations to seek a further Security Council resolution on Iraq. Then, only a few lines later, he blithely tells us: "I was pretty clear that Powell and Blair were going to get what they wanted."

I can only assume that Meyer is ignorant of much of the intensive work that went on during this period, including a secret mission by Straw to visit Powell at his home in the US in August, with the intention of making clear that a UN process was essential. This trip was evidently a secret to our ambassador.

Meyer makes the further, fanciful suggestion that military action could have been delayed for roughly six months so that the allies could create a greater international consensus. It was patently clear that Saddam Hussein was flouting Security Council Resolution 1441 - painstakingly agreed over two months of intensive negotiations between Straw, Powell, Dominique de Villepin and the others. Yet the French, for their own reasons, refused to issue an ultimatum in a second resolution in March 2003 (by which time Meyer had left Washington). All the evidence suggests that, far from supporting military action at a later date, Paris would have sought to use such a delay to dilute any international pressure on Iraq further still.

I have no wish to join the rush to question Meyer's right to continue as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission in the light of these memoirs. But I do question his judgement in producing what is little more than a content-free, name-dropping, gossip-laden, spleen-venting book that adds nothing to our understanding of diplomacy, politics or Iraq. I suspect that over time, once he realises what this has done to his reputation and standing, Meyer himself might possibly agree.

Ed Owen is a political consultant, and worked as special adviser to Jack Straw at the Foreign Office from 2001 to 2005

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The next holocaust