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Can do: Jeremy Heywood briefs the prime minister David Cameron in 2011. Photo: Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty Images

Yes, really, Prime Minister: Jeremy Heywood, master of Whitehall

The late cabinet secretary’s can-do attitude exemplified the best—and showed up the worst—of how our government works

The running gag in Yes, Prime Minister is that when Sir Humphrey says “yes,” he really means “no.” The remarkable thing about Jeremy Heywood, which made him stand out from other senior civil servants, was that when he said “yes,” he really meant it. In 2013 he told his wife Suzanne that “the easiest answer is ‘no, minister—it’s impossible.’ But I prefer, ‘I think we can do it, minister, but it’s not going to be easy and will require some compromise.’”

The British civil service is unquestionably the best in the world, but one of its major problems is its fatalism. When a team from the Home Office came to brief Tony Blair as the new PM, they had multi-coloured PowerPoint slides showing crime inexorably rising. Tony asked why, and they cheerfully explained that a growing economy was putting more temptations in the way of criminals. I asked…

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