Obituary: Jeremy Heywood, UK Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service

By on 27/11/2018
The late Sir Jeremy Heywood, former UK cabinet secretary.

The former cabinet secretary, who died earlier this month, managed to challenge people’s thinking whilst winning their trust – a rare skill, and one that powered an exceptional career. Matt Ross reflects on the life of Lord Heywood

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the former UK cabinet secretary who died on 4 November, was widely recognised as the most outstanding British official of his generation: as former PM Tony Blair noted, he “worked with more prime ministers and at a more senior level than any civil servant in living memory and served us all with integrity, distinction and infinite commitment.”

That tally of prime ministers reached four: Labour’s Blair and his successor Gordon Brown, plus the Conservatives’ David Cameron and Theresa May. For Heywood had a remarkable talent for winning the trust of ministers – who recognised both his unrivalled ability to push reforms and policies through Whitehall, and his complete commitment to delivering for the elected government of the day.

So on his death at the tragically young age of 56, ministers from across the political spectrum gave tribute. “Brilliant, unorthodox, creative and unbelievably hard-working,” tweeted former chancellor George Osborne. “Ingenious, unflinching, human,” commented former foreign secretary David Miliband. “A public servant in the very finest tradition of Whitehall,” said Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister in the 2010-15 coalition – adding with masterful understatement: “He served the two sides of the Coalition with great loyalty and objectivity, which was not always easy.”

Rise like a rocket

Born in Derbyshire on 31 December 1961, Heywood attended the Quaker school where his father was a teacher. There, he won a place at Oxford University to study history and economics – and perhaps picked up some of the school’s ethics and attitudes: “An atheist, he was a life-long model of the calm, cerebral, ethical Quaker,” wrote former transport secretary Lord Adonis in his Times obituary.

Joining the Health and Safety Executive as a graduate economist, he was soon spotted and head-hunted by the Treasury; then by Treasury minister Norman Lamont, who made him his private secretary at just 26 years of age. After a period on secondment at the World Bank and IMF, he returned to the Treasury as principal private secretary (PPS) when Lamont became chancellor – playing a key role in dealing with the aftermath of Britain’s ignominious collapse out of the EU’s exchange rate mechanism, and keeping the PPS job when Ken Clarke replaced Lamont. By 1998 Heywood was PPS to new Labour PM Tony Blair, who told his special adviser Alastair Campbell: “I wish we had two or three more like him.”

In 2004 he left for a stint at bankers Morgan Stanley, returning to Number 10 when incoming PM Gordon Brown offered him a job as head of domestic policy and strategy. “I had no idea when I came back into government in 2007 how useful that [banking] experience would be – or just how lucky I was to be leaving the City at precisely the right time,” he told me in 2011, during an interview for Civil Service World (CSW). After 25 years at the heart of government, it was his first media interview: Heywood believed, one colleague told me, that “his job will be easier if he stays out of the limelight.”

Cool head in a crisis

In autumn 2007 came the credit crunch and the collapse of UK bank Northern Rock – when Heywood’s unflappable demeanour and his capacity for shrewd analysis again proved invaluable. “He could analyse a problem extraordinarily quickly,” former cabinet secretary Lord Turnbull told CSW. “He always kept his cool and focused on the issue”.

In 2008, Brown gave Heywood greater heft at the heart of government by creating a new role for him: permanent secretary of Number 10. There, he helped facilitate and maintain the Coalition government, and in 2012 was made cabinet secretary: the PM’s leading policy adviser. Two years later he also became head of the civil service (HCS), taking on the corporate aspects of civil service leadership following the departure of HCS Bob Kerslake.

Heywood’s relentless rise, persisting through governments comprising all three main parties, demonstrates his unparalleled capacity to make himself invaluable to each new PM. “Jeremy defied every convention about the experience you would need to perform these roles – but was also clearly the only candidate any PM would consider,” commented Jill Rutter, a former Treasury colleague now working at think tank the Institute for Government.

UK Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood speaking to participants in the British Government’s Commercial Secondment Programme for high-potential civil servants.

When unwanted advice is wanted

Successive PMs quickly recognised his uncanny ability to calmly assess a problem, devise a solution, and galvanise people in its pursuit; and because they could see his utter commitment to realising their goals, they trusted him when he told them things they didn’t want to hear. As Bob Kerslake told CSW: “The very fact that he wouldn’t just say to PMs: ‘That’s too difficult,” was what gave him the authority to be direct when it really mattered”.

It is hard, though, to imagine Heywood uttering the words ‘too difficult’. He loved devising inventive solutions to problems: “Jeremy was very innovative; he wanted to find new ways of doing things,” former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell recalled on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour. And he was an excellent judge of character, “as good at reading people as he was situations,” as Alastair Campbell wrote in the New European.

These interpersonal skills were core to Heywood’s success; he knew both how to motivate and rally people around a cause, and which arguments to deploy with each individual. As Cameron told CSW: “He had a good understanding of the politics, of the people, and the egos.”

The power of modesty

Heywood himself appeared to lack ego; what mattered was the goal, not who scored it. And he pursued his goals with an impressive blend of unfailing courtesy, inarguable logic and understated charisma – a combination as potent with this reporter as with ministers and his Whitehall colleagues. As Rachel Hopcroft, his PPS for four years, told CSW: he used “warmth, charm and a lot of empathy to understand where people were coming from”. He’d then win people’s support “by commanding respect; this wasn’t someone who’d bully people,” O’Donnell told Radio 4. It was significant that, alongside the modern art adorning his Number 10 office, Heywood kept a bust of Gandhi: “Not a role model, but an inspiration,” he told me with a smile.

That sense of humour was also incredibly potent: Heywood recognised the huge importance of the work he did, but never lost his sense of proportion. Former permanent secretary Dame Sue Street has rightly pointed out “that twinkle in his eye that showed a sense of perspective on the curious world of Whitehall and Westminster.”

He retained that sense of humour even when – as the increasingly rancorous Brexit debate poisoned the public discourse – Heywood became a target of Brexiteers suspicious of a Whitehall establishment they saw as a Remainer fifth column. “He was undermined and attacked by the press, politicians and even from within government, but he was committed to delivering the best possible outcome for the country in the most extraordinary circumstances,” Dave Penman of the FDA Union told CSW. And he continued doing so even after being diagnosed with cancer, handling his illness with incredible fortitude; he finally stepped down just two weeks before his death, receiving a peerage.

Those who knew him, respected him

The politicians who really mattered ignored those attacks – for they had enormous trust in both Heywood’s skills, and his commitment to delivering their aims. “Most ministers don’t want ‘yes men’ or ‘yes women’; they want people who are prepared to speak truth unto power and give them the best possible, evidence-based advice,” he told me in a 2012 CSW interview. And that may be true – but nobody could provide advice quite like Jeremy Heywood.

As another key adviser, Cameron’s long-standing policy adviser and minister Oliver Letwin, wrote of Heywood in the Dorset Echo: “Unflappable, tireless, infinitely cunning, and a person of absolute integrity, he dealt with crisis after crisis without ever losing either his ethereal calm or his enthusiasm for finding solutions when many other people were intent on finding problems.”

And he found those solutions, in part, because people could see where Heywood was coming from; amidst the tensions and fractures of government, he always found a path that reconciled the civil service’s core principles, the national interest, and the democratic mandate of the elected government. He was a “brilliant figure: dedicated, passionate about public service, and incredibly nice with it,” former cabinet secretary Lord Wilson told CSW. “He was a decent, good man. Behind all of this that’s the fundamental thing that mattered about him.”

The last word, though, goes to Lord O’Donnell – a close friend who rode out many a government crisis with the indefatigable, inspirational Jeremy Heywood. The former cabinet secretary was, he concluded on Radio 4, “a phenomenon. And we won’t see his like again.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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