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
May 4, 2021

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 what would happen in a downturn, and they equally cheerfully replied that offences would rise, because deprived people would resort to crime.

What leaps out of every page of Suzanne Heywood’s loving biography of her husband, who died of lung cancer in 2018 at the age of just 56, is that Jeremy was a different kind of civil servant. An outsider, starting in the Health and Safety Executive, and an economist rather than a mainstream civil servant, he asked the awkward questions. In 1994, as a relatively young man, he was put in charge of a review of the structure of the Treasury and used it to challenge old ways of working and rip out the wasteful middle ranks—earning himself plenty of enemies. But the same radicalism made him attractive to ministers.

I first met Jeremy in 1997 when he was sent to Downing Street as the Treasury private secretary. As Blair’s chief of staff, I was ensconced in the traditional private secretaries’ office next to the Cabinet room with John Holmes, the principal private secretary. Jeremy surprised both of us by demanding that he be allowed to bring his desk into our office so that he could be at the heart of power. I agreed and never regretted it. He had a remarkable ability to make things happen.

The episode that I remember best was the fuel crisis of 2000. At first, we didn’t think it was going to be that serious. The police would clear the pickets and ensure the tankers kept rolling. Tony called me from a regional tour to say that if I didn’t sort it out, he would be furious. As it got worse, with Jeremy and I holed up in a little room underneath the Cabinet secretary’s office with senior executives from the oil companies, we managed bit by bit to force the refineries to open. It had been a very close-run thing. We had been within hours of invoking the Emergency Powers Act as hospitals had to resort to generators and cashpoints ran out of notes. Jeremy had worked the phones around the clock to devise ways to overcome the crisis.

Before this, Jeremy had already worked as the private secretary to two chancellors, Norman Lamont and Ken Clarke, and survived “Black Wednesday.” He went on to serve four prime ministers of very different stripes in essentially the same role. The reason he made himself invaluable was, as he put it, he “tried to get different sides to stop framing elegant descriptions of the problem—something Whitehall loved doing—and start coming up with practical solutions.”

The transitions from one prime minister to another were not easy. Jeremy had had to manage our tense relationship with the chancellor Gordon Brown through regular shouting matches with his adviser Ed Balls, including the farcical dance over the five euro tests. Brown himself apparently did not talk to Jeremy the whole time he was chancellor. Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet secretary, had to tell Jeremy in 2007 that, despite it all, the new PM did like him. O’Donnell persuaded Heywood to return to government—after he left for a brief sojourn in banking—to drive Brown’s domestic policy. He survived the chaotic ad-hocery of Brown’s regime and played a key role in tackling the 2008 banking crisis.

David Cameron was suspicious of his closeness to Brown. He needn’t have worried: as far as I could tell, Jeremy didn’t have a political bone in his body. When the coalition government came in, Cameron soon found out how useful he was and created a new job for him as permanent secretary in No 10; later, he made him Cabinet secretary. In those roles he was unable to stop all the daft ideas put forward—like Andrew Lansley’s disastrous NHS reforms, or Cameron’s EU referendum—but he was at least able to make the government machine implement the coalition’s priorities effectively.

His final transition to Theresa May was perhaps the hardest. May’s twin chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who had come with her from the Home Office, were keen to shut him out. But Jeremy found a way of making himself indispensable and outlasted the duo, who left after the disastrous 2017 election campaign.

Throughout his career, Jeremy tried to modernise and reform the civil service but ran into the same challenges reformers have faced since Harold Wilson appointed the Fulton Committee in 1968. The fundamental problem is that the civil service is akin to a monastic order. People enter after university and generally stay throughout their career, retiring at 60. They are very effective at resisting change. Suzanne’s book describes repeated unsuccessful efforts to bring in outsiders. When Richard Wilson retired as Cabinet secretary in 2002, we tried to bring in someone from business to replace him—but Richard saw the idea off. Bringing in former permanent secretary Michael Bichard proved too much, as he had spent the first half of his career in local government rather than Whitehall. In the end the job went to Andrew Turnbull from the Treasury. There is a reason why a series of prime ministers have complained about the civil service holding them back—from Blair’s “scars on my back” to Cameron’s “enemies of enterprise.”

Lasting influence: Prime minister of the day Theresa May, her three predecessors, David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, as well as ex-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, pay tribute to Heywood at his memorial service in 2019. Image: Shutterstock Lasting influence: Prime minister of the day Theresa May, her three predecessors, David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, as well as ex-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, pay tribute to Heywood at his memorial service in 2019. Image: Shutterstock

Lasting influence: Prime minister of the day Theresa May, her three predecessors, David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, as well as ex-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, pay tribute to Heywood at his memorial service in 2019. Image: Shutterstock

Dominic Cummings was not wrong that the civil service needs fundamental reform. He just went about it in completely the wrong way. Threatening “a hard rain” and engineering the sacking of a series of permanent secretaries got the backs up of people whose co-operation he needed. Worse, trying to appoint cronies like David Frost to neutral civil service jobs threatened the very existence of non-political public service—the basis of our system of government since the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854. Cummings was right that government needs much better data to make decisions. But building a new operations centre in the Cabinet room with a bank of TV screens was not the answer. Nor was trying to run the government through a parallel system of special advisers, unconnected to the civil service, reporting to him.

Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s book on the Covid-19 crisis illustrates how badly things can go wrong if you run government in that fashion. The two journalists from the Sunday Times’s Insight Team broke the story of Boris Johnson skipping the first five Cobra meetings called to respond to the virus, something no other prime minster would have done. A breathtaking series of unforced errors is catalogued—from the failure to lock down quickly enough in March 2020, to dumping elderly patients with Covid out of hospital and into care homes, to the failure to provide PPE, to the collapse of the test and trace app, to the on-off opening of schools, to Cummings’s jaunt to Barnard Castle. As David King, a former chief scientific adviser, put it, we ended up “with the worst of both worlds,” suffering tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths and a bigger fall in GDP than any other G7 country.

Johnson’s defence is being wheeled out in advance of the much-delayed statutory inquiry. He says that he wishes he knew then what he knows now, and charges his critics with the sin of retrospection. This is difficult to sustain. As Calvert and Arbuthnott reveal, Johnson made exactly the same mistake in September 2020 in locking down too late—ending up with a second wave that took more lives than the first. He claimed he was again following the science but, under pressure from his backbenchers, he was doing the opposite of what his chief scientists Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance were proposing. Even Cummings reportedly had a “Domoscene” conversion and wanted a circuit-breaker lockdown—but Johnson dithered. As Calvert and Arbuthnott conclude, history is unlikely to be kind to the PM over his handling of Covid.

Their book went to press prior to the success of the vaccine programme, which has, for the moment, remade the politics in Johnson’s favour, although the UK’s cumulative death toll remains appalling by global standards. Nonetheless, it’s worth pausing to ask about a big thing that has gone right in government, after so much before had gone wrong. Just as not all the failures over Covid were down to Conservative ministers—civil servants will have to shoulder some of the blame—nor were the successes of the vaccination campaign all down to the brilliance of the politicians. Cummings, in a pre-emptive attack, described Whitehall as a “disaster zone” and the Department of Health as “a smoking ruin,” and claimed the vaccination programme had to be taken away from officials in those departments.

“In the absence of a sweeping reform programme, the innovations in public service that sprang up during the pandemic are likely to wither away”

There is no doubt that appointing a businesswoman, Kate Bingham, and an experienced outside team to source the vaccine and negotiate the contracts was a good idea. (Bingham is married to Jesse Norman MP, the financial secretary to the Treasury.) The outsiders took major risks in betting on particular vaccines early on—the civil service is bad at managing risk—and luckily it paid off. But buying the vaccine was only half the challenge. The successful delivery, as everyone who has been vaccinated so far can vouch, is down to the NHS. Having a top-down system, a bit like the Soviet steel industry under Stalin, is an excellent way of meeting targets. It was the combination of risk-taking by outsiders and public service delivery that turned out to work.

But that combination of business and public service doesn’t inevitably work. It didn’t on the test, trace and isolate programme. For this the government appointed Dido Harding, another businesswoman married to a Tory politician, and a team of outsiders. They managed to allocate £37bn of public money and yet, in the words of the Public Accounts Committee, could not point to “a measurable difference in the progress of the pandemic.” This failure appears to be in part because the testing system was not joined up to the local council-run tracing system. This continues to matter because our way out of the pandemic will depend on test and trace as well as vaccination.

In his book How Should a Government Be? Cambridge professor of business Jaideep Prabhu points to the virtues of combining the skills of the state and the private sector. He argues that bureaucracy is the government’s default response to risk because it is accountable and has to explain why money is wasted or why things went wrong. The debate should no longer be between big government and government “getting out of the way,” but about whether it can, enabled by new technology, become entrepreneurial.

To prove his point, Prabhu describes a series of innovative programmes, from a neighbourhood care system in the Netherlands to India’s massive—and controversial—programme to give everyone a unique ID number to streamline the delivery of state benefits. Governments everywhere must, he thinks, use new technologies to develop cheap and effective delivery systems. But that is not the whole answer. He points out that while the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—beloved of Cummings—developed the internet, it took Apple to design the iPhone.

Prabhu sees the solution, therefore, in government sharing the task with business, building some services around the customer as Amazon does. The recent scandals about PPE procurement and Lex Greensill (the wealthy financier who was brought in by Heywood after his spell in banking, and who later employed David Cameron after he left office) are warnings of what can go wrong if business and government get too close. The answer, however, is not to separate the two but to have functioning safeguards to prevent cronyism and corruption.

Prabhu notes that most change comes in government as the result of small experimental units or ginger groups from the outside, which break the hermetic seal of the civil service and “infect” the rest of government with new ideas. That is certainly what Michael Barber’s Delivery Unit did for us when Blair was in government—and it seems to be what is happening today around the world.

We will have to wait for the Covid inquiry to work out what went wrong in the pandemic and what needs to change to avoid another disaster on the same scale. But we can start reforming our system of government now. That should not involve undermining the independent civil service, still the jewel in our crown, but trying to make it more permeable to outside influences. It needs to change its skill set so it can, for example, do project management on a Covid app successfully, and open its mind to the sorts of innovations suggested by Prabhu. It should take advantage of tech, and find a way of working with the private sector both on delivery and most of all in managing risk, as it did on the vaccine.

Absent a sweeping reform programme like that sparked by the Beveridge report after the Second World War, the innovations in public service that sprang up during the pandemic are likely to wither away. The best way to counter that would be to experiment with radical policies at the local level, particularly with metro mayors—one of the remarkable success stories in delivering a response to the Covid crisis in innovative ways. Even if Whitehall lapses back into its worst “can’t do” mode, if local pilot schemes are delivering results, they become impossible for “the centre” to ignore at a national level, as often happens in the US with policies first developed at the city level.

But perhaps what we need most of all is more civil servants like Jeremy Heywood, who make things happen instead of explaining why they cannot be done. As Theresa May said in her eulogy at Jeremy’s memorial service, “people will look back and notice when he stopped.”

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What Does Jeremy Think? Jeremy Heywood and the Making of Modern Britain by Suzanne Heywood (William Collins, £25)

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How Should a Government Be? The New Levers of State Power by Jaideep Prabhu (Profile, £20)

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Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott (Mudlark, £20)