The supreme talent of Jeremy Heywood, 1961-2018

The former cabinet secretary showed the civil service at its best

November 06, 2018
Photo: DPA/PA Images
Photo: DPA/PA Images

Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary and Britain’s top civil servant, was never a street fighter. When he won battles in Whitehall—as he invariably did—it was because of the sheer brilliance of his performance. “He always outperformed opponents—he didn’t hit them below the belt,” said Anthony Seldon, who has written the history of all cabinet secretaries since the post was created over 100 years ago.

Heywood‘s untimely death from cancer at the age of 56 leaves a gap at the heart of government. Charming, with a prodigious appetite for hard work though he also loved parties, he made himself indispensable to prime ministers of all colours and temperaments. He was at the shoulder of Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron and, all too briefly, Theresa May. A policy man to his fingertips, he saw it as his job “to make things happen” and he had a talent for finding new ways of tackling so-called “wicked” issues. Even at the end, when he was having chemotherapy, he would be on his phone—against doctors’ orders—asking how things were going, whether there were any blockages, whether he could help.

Brexit dominated his final period as cabinet secretary. The Chequers compromise bears his stamp. His career included many moments of high drama: economic crises, the Iraq war, scandals like plebgate, and the years of the TB/GBs—the internal warfare between PM Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown. Gus, now Lord, O’Donnell, Heywood’s first boss at the Treasury and his immediate predecessor as cabinet secretary, paid tribute to the way his protégé moved “seamlessly” from one prime minister to another.When the once close relationship between Blair and his chancellor deteriorated, notably over Brown’s five tests for Britain to join the euro, Heywood stepped in. He had become close to Ed Balls, Brown’s special adviser, and the two met constantly, often at a “greasy spoon” café in Whitehall, where they schemed to keep the peace between their bosses.

Heywood was an arch fixer. O’Donnell, who lived near him in South London, recalled: “when he was at No 10 and I was cabinet secretary, we would come in together with the wonderful Barry as our driver. Frequently we would be taking calls from ministers who wanted to complain to one of us that the other one was being awkward. By the end of the journey we had managed to sort out most of the problems.”

As PM, Brown promoted Heywood to be permanent secretary at No 10 but he also brought in Stephen Carter, a businessman with no experience of Whitehall. An observer described the ensuing turf war between Heywood and Carter as like a “lion and a deer in a cage.” When Carter failed to show one morning Heywood said drily: “Stephen has decided it’s more important to play golf today than to attend the No 10 management meeting.” The remark was leaked to the press. Carter left.

So too did Steve Hilton, unorthodox special adviser to Tory PM David Cameron. The disruptive and eccentric Hilton, who liked to pad round Downing Street in bare feet, wanted to decimate the civil service—pretty much literally. Again, Heywood saw him off.

Heywood’s commitment to the civil service values of impartiality and speaking truth to power won the respect of politicians and his fellow officials. His first major Whitehall job was as principal private secretary to the then chancellor, Norman Lamont, whose special adviser was one David Cameron. Cameron was said to be “in awe” of Heywood, whose creative approach helped restore order after the chaos of Black Wednesday.

In 2014 Heywood took on the additional role of head of the civil service. He was a strong proponent of reform—and could be ruthless. His review of the Treasury’s own costs called for a 30 per cent cut in senior manpower: the offices of the mandarins due to be axed being dubbed “the corridor of death.” He was constantly looking for new ways of doing things. “He was very driven,” said Gus O’Donnell. “He’d knock heads together to make sure that what really mattered to people was delivered.”

Jeremy John Heywood was born in 1961 in Glossop and educated at Bootham, a Quaker independent school in York where his father taught. After gaining a first in history and economics at Hertford College, Oxford, he studied for an MSc at the London School of Economics before joining the civil service.

In 1997 he married Suzanne Cook, a civil servant who later worked for McKinsey. They had three children: a son followed by twins—a boy and a girl. With a young family, he decided leave Whitehall and join the investment bank, Morgan Stanley but PM Brown persuaded him to come back to No 10.

His cancer had been known for a year but his death was still a shock. Labour MP Yvette Cooper, married to Ed Balls, started to weep live on Sky TV when the news came through. Yet Heywood’s influence will continue be felt—not least in Whitehall, which much to his dismay, has been so under attack from Brexiteers. As O’Donnell said: “he has bolstered the service’s reputation by demonstrating that [it] can support whichever party is elected. This is a huge strength to our country and needs to be preserved. Let’s hope it is part of Jeremy’s legacy.”