Remembering Jeremy Heywood… personal reflections on a brilliant leader
CSW brings together memories and tributes from those who knew Lord Heywood over his 35 years as a civil servant
Sir Jeremy Heywood photographed for CSW by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Over three decades at the centre of power, Lord Heywood made his mark as the outstanding civil servant of his generation. But what was he like to work with? And what made him such a strong leader? Below we bring together reflections from those who knew him, from former prime ministers and cabinet secretaries, to those who worked in his office, those he mentored, and those whose careers he supported. Use the quick links below to move between sections
Personal reflections on a brilliant leader
“From the moment I joined the civil service in 1989, Jeremy Heywood was a name that you knew. One of the cleverest people around, he was also prepared to be radical and disrupt the status quo. His 1994 review of the Treasury transformed it – cutting management layers, placing new emphasis on leadership and people skills, and bringing economists into policymaking. As a young Treasury economist, it created opportunities for me that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
"During the Blair-Brown years I first experienced the forensic questioning which was the Heywood trademark. By then Jeremy was running No 10 and I was a deputy director in the Treasury. He often had cause to summon us to Downing Street and quiz us on what we were up to. Without fail he zoomed in on the question you couldn’t answer, no matter how well-prepared you were. He made you think again – even if you didn’t always want to admit it straightaway.
"This relentless pursuit of excellence had a clear purpose. Jeremy wanted every government he served to achieve the best for the country. And he was determined for the civil service to do its best in support of that. Many a government disaster has been avoided in a Jeremy Heywood meeting. Equally, many a difficult and necessary action has been pursued because Jeremy wouldn’t let it go, kept on pushing.
"All this made for a formidable reputation – and it was true you had to be on your mettle. But later on, especially when I went to work for him in the Cabinet Office during the coalition, I realised that the most important thing about Jeremy was how calm, fair and balanced he was. His meetings got to the point ruthlessly, but they had a lightness of touch, they were full of humour, and he listened and was prepared to change his mind. He was never dismissive of an individual, even if their department’s plans needed – shall we say – a certain amount of remedial work.
"He also knew how hard the job of civil servants could be and was constantly ready to support and defend people who needed it. Much of this was done behind the scenes. During the months after the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 he was always on the end of the phone when I needed his advice, always making sure we were OK. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had just had his cancer diagnosis. I still find it amazing that he gave so much support and kindness to others in the hardest of times for himself.
"In my last email exchange with Jeremy a month ago he was his usual self. Checking up on various aspects of housing delivery, reminding me to be ambitious on civil service workforce strategies. Jeremy represented the very best of the brilliant civil service that he so passionately believed in. And the civil service, and our work, inspired him to the end.”
Melanie Dawes, permanent secretary, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
“It occurs to me that despite our huge loss, we’re a truly lucky generation of civil servants. We are truly lucky to have known Jeremy, to be inspired by him, mentored, supported, and encouraged by him, kept on our toes by him, and to have been be led by him.
"My closing thought is not about our generation of civil servants but about the future. Jeremy was passionate about a civil service capable of spotting tomorrow’s challenges, equipped with tomorrow’s skills. He cared about future talent just as much as he cared about data. He cared about our renewal as a service, so let’s promise ourselves that we will, all of us, invest in the career of the civil servant who perhaps started her apprenticeship this week, or who perhaps gained their first promotion last month, or has been thinking today of trying something different. Jeremy, given the time, would have mentored all of them, so let’s take the generosity and that impulse forward and let’s keep that great story of renewal going.”
Richard Heaton, permanent secretary, Ministry of Justice, speaking at the Civil Service Awards
“Jeremy quickly became a friend and inspirational mentor – backing every single one of my ideas, encouraging me to be bolder and to trust my instincts. He always did what he said he was going to do and helped in any way he could. Jeremy has been a huge part of my civil service journey since I started in 2009 and he will continue to inspire me in more ways than I can say.”
Rosehanna Chowdhury, mentee of Jeremy Heywood and founder of the LSE Alumni network
“Jeremy was somebody who, despite having all of the power, was very willing to make space to let others lead. When we founded OneTeamGov he sent me a message saying: ‘The best thing people like me can do for people like you is to just get out of the way and let you deliver.’ That was something I never expected to hear from someone like him. He would send me messages of support unexpectedly, the last one of which said ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got your back,’ and it feels like he still does.”
Kit Collingwood-Richardson, co-founder of OneTeamGov
“Jeremy and I both entered the Cabinet Office around the same time though it was probably the last 10 years that saw us working together more closely. We were a strong team. He was the most amazing person to work with.
"Jeremy and I were very different. I joined the civil service from school and our career paths were therefore very different and it was to Jeremy’s huge credit that he wanted me at his meetings often on issues that were not my area of responsibility. Why did he want me there? He wanted me there to challenge him, to give diversity of thought, to ensure that the meeting had the widest range of thoughts to ensure the best outcomes. Though having asked for my views he would then spend the next 30 minutes disagreeing with me, but it was this process of robust challenge and discussion that helped ensure the best outcomes.
"At the end of a process we would often reflect on our way of working recognising where we had started and acknowledging the compromises we had made as a result of our way of working. Jeremy practised what he talked about, I have lost a great friend and colleague and the civil service has lost a truly inspirational leader.”
Sue Gray, permanent secretary, Department of Finance, Northern Ireland Civil Service
“I had the privilege of working as press officer to Jeremy in the lead up to, and period after, the 2015 General Election. It was one of the most insightful and inspirational years of my career. Jeremy was, hands down, the most diligent, detail-focused and hard-working leader I’ve ever supported.
"While Jeremy’s direct engagements with the media were limited, one interview stands out – with Civil Service World, in fact.
"As we neared the end of a smooth half hour, a final question was asked, perhaps a little prematurely: “And what do you plan on doing next?”
“Next?” Jeremy responded, sounding puzzled, “I’m going to carry on doing the job of cabinet secretary and the head of the civil service. There’s an awful lot to be getting on with.”
"As ever, dedicated, diligent and focused on the job in hand. An inspirational man who will be sorely missed by those who knew him, and even more who didn’t.”
Andrew Cocks, former press officer to the cabinet secretary
Three decades at the centre of power...
...Navigating tricky situations
“I will always remember Jeremy’s meetings with Ed Balls in the cafe by the Red Lion where they hammered out an agreement on how the five tests [on Euro membership] should be presented. Not exactly standard procedure, but very effective. Typical Jeremy.”
Lord O’Donnell, cabinet secretary 2005-2011
“My favourite memory is when we met for breakfast in the Cinnamon Club just after the EU referendum. He breezed in as usual, smiling and courteous. I had expected to find him crest-fallen about the Leave victory and the political crisis. “Well, it’s a big change of policy, and we are getting a new prime minister, so we will have to turn everything on a sixpence,” he said. He added with a winning smile: “But that’s what we do!”.
"Leave supporters lament the lack of positive advice ministers have been given about Brexit, but I have only ever felt sympathy for officials trying to deliver policy under a divided cabinet, which has provided so little clear leadership. Jeremy was ready to turn the ship, but in the end, it is ministers who determine what happens, not officials. He was broken hearted to be forced to leave Whitehall amidst all this, above all because he relished such a sense of duty and loyalty to the country.”
Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
“Once the [coalition agreement] was up and running, Jeremy was very good at helping to keep the show on the road. He was always appealing to Nick Clegg’s better nature, which is a large part of Nick Clegg’s nature, and appealing to my better nature, which I hope is a reasonable part of my nature.”
David Cameron, former prime minister
“We had a breakfast meeting every Tuesday just over the road in Whitehall – a greasy spoon called Churchill’s. From early on we knew we had to make this relationship work.
"One occasion I remember very well: we were right in the middle of the negotiations over the five tests assessment as to whether joining the Euro would be good for Britain. There were a couple of bust ups between [Brown and Blair] and then the message came through that Jeremy was going to come over to look at the document with me. He arrived in my room at seven in the evening and we sat just the two of us for six hours until one in the morning going through this whole document line by line... The plan was for this to be printed overnight and we had a team waiting to print it, but Jeremy was going to take as long as it took, to argue every point. We found an agreement on every line. I think maybe he thought he might wear me out and he didn’t. But it was a tough night.”
Ed Balls, former adviser to Gordon Brown
“He regarded the coalition government as a particularly proud time because it depended on an agreement between the two coalition parties, and it was a really big job, in my view for the civil service to uphold those. Obviously you needed to be flexible with those rules, but also uphold the spirit of the first coalition government since the second world war. Jeremy was such a huge guiding hand in that, he felt very strongly that those rules and that agreement should be upheld.”
Rachel Hopcroft, former PPS to the cabinet secretary
“In government there have been many crises in the last 20 years: what is striking is how Jeremy was at hand in nearly all of them. The rebuilding policy after we left the ERM, the Brown Blair squabbles where he kept the peace, the five test decision not to join the single currency, a new financial crisis, getting the coalition to work and most recently Brexit.
"What was impressive was not simply the hours that he worked, which many have remarked on, but how effective he was. He could analyse a problem extraordinarily quickly and make decisions or give advice speedily. Also through many great stresses he always kept his cool and focused on the issue in question and maintained his courtesy at all times. He was the consummate problem solver.”
Lord Turnbull, cabinet secretary 2002-2005
“I remember him ringing me up on 9/11, as I was driving back from lunch. We had just heard that a plane had driven into the World Trade Centre, then another, and then the phone rang, it was Jeremy. He said “we’ve heard, the White House may evacuate, should we evacuate No 10?”. I said: ‘Jeremy where would they go?” and he didn’t know, so I replied “OK, think all of all the special advisors lining up on Whitehall with their briefcases and laptops, wondering where to go to. It was quite an image…”
“We didn’t know at that moment quite how serious it was.... Through that day, that afternoon, we did a lot of things, we both simply fought our way through a whole raft of awful issues like: what happens if an aircraft comes over London and is hijacked, who’s in charge of deciding whether to shoot it down or not? Horrible things that we suddenly faced.
“He was a good man at those moments. You could stand shoulder-to-shoulder, you didn’t need to look at him, you knew he was there.”
Lord Wilson, cabinet secretary 1998-2002
Working with JJH
“Jeremy was like the best football captain: when he’s on the pitch, everyone plays better.”
Antonia Romeo, permanent secretary, Department for International Trade
“One of the privileges of being cabinet secretary is the quality of the people you had to work with you and Jeremy, absolutely, is the prime example. Out of nowhere came this brilliant figure: dedicated, passionate about public service, and incredibly nice with it. He was a decent, good man. Behind all of this that’s the fundamental thing that mattered about him.”
Lord Wilson, cabinet secretary 1998-2002
“He was probably one of the busiest people in England but he always seemed to have time to do whatever it was that needed doing, and just a phenomenal amount of energy.”
Oliver Letwin, former Cabinet Office minister
“I absolutely loved working for him from the moment I started working for him, which surprised a lot of people at the time because they thought it would be a huge change between him and Gus [O’Donnell].
"Don’t get me wrong, he was hugely challenging and demanding, and sometimes you could have the impression that anything less than about 98% was a fail, but he gave very, very clear instructions and had very clear expectations. That made working for him so rewarding because you were never in any doubt what you were working for and to what purpose. I reflect now how empowering that was for all of us because we were never in any doubt of what we were all seeking to achieve: it was just a question of how we were going to get there.”
Rachel Hopcroft, PPS to the cabinet secretary 2011 – 2016
“He was very good at challenging you to do better, always in a very thoughtful, very nice way, but always demanding in the best sense of the word.
I remember a moment in No 10 when I delivered a note on a Friday for Blair, and Jeremy corrected my grammar. There was a kind of irony because his dad had taught me English and I remember laughing.”
Sir Michael Barber, first head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit
The outstanding civil servant of his generation
...understanding the issues
“The qualities I admired were first, obviously, his very high intelligence, coupled with a strong drive for hard work. He grasped issues, he absorbed paper. He had the kind of skill, a speed of working, which was impressive.”
Lord Wilson, cabinet secretary 1998-2002
“The death of Jeremy Heywood is a tragedy for his family, the civil service and the United Kingdom. As tributes following his death have confirmed, he was the outstanding civil servant of his generation.
"In October 2017, a couple of days before the announcement of his illness, he held one of his periodic meetings with his predecessors as cabinet secretary over sandwiches in his office. He made no reference to his illness but he impressed us all with his comprehensive grip over the complex issues facing the government. My memory of his performance on that occasion makes my feeling of the loss to the nation caused by his death all the more poignant.”
Lord Butler, cabinet secretary 1988-1998
“The way he championed the What Works Centres just absolutely typified Jeremy as a civil servant. He had a passion for data: when he went into meetings he was always pushing to see the data. And so he was a big champion of the centres to try and provide evidence-based policymaking, and in many ways that could be one of his most important legacies.”
Lord Kerslake, head of the civil service 2011-2014
“Jeremy was very much someone you could trust to get results. He worked incredibly quickly and would not get deterred when the machine tried to slow him down.
"Jeremy was particularly good at finding ways through when it appeared that there were irreconcilable differences. He was a creative thinker which definitely helped but also listened to what it was each side really needed.”
Lord O’Donnell, cabinet secretary 2005-2011
“He was actually very constructive and a brilliant problem solver. A piece of advice would come up which would say: ‘Your options are A, B and C’, and he would sometimes add a covering note saying, ‘What about another option D: a combination of A&B’.
"He was a real help to decision making – that was what was so striking about him. He was not just an administrator or a channel, as a private secretary can be, for communication two ways: he actually contributed to the solutions.”
Lord Lamont, former chancellor
“He was really a pressure absorber: some people, when faced with pressure, deflect it to others, but Jeremy had an ability diffuse it. He’s absolutely the reverse of someone who would run round and yell ‘don’t panic, don’t panic’. Instead he would want to break things down logically: if we think this through, we can do this. He had a big capacity for thinking that problems were soluble and therefore it was just the task of the civil service to locate a politically viable option for ministers.”
Jill Rutter, programme director Institute for Government, and former senior civil servant
"It’s not fair to say British civil servants are staid and steady and orthodox, I’ve never found that at all, but there’s a particularly creative, inventive, enquiring streak with Jeremy.
"I never had any feel for what his politics were; he was just this innovative, creative, inquiring mind.”
David Cameron, former prime minister
...getting things done
“I learned [from Jeremy] that the details and tactics of process are really important to the big decision. To get the big things done you have to manage the small things, and he was a master of remembering both of those. The way he was able to pull all the threads together and remember all the little bits of process where if you got it wrong, somebody’s ego would be rubbed up the wrong way – he was just very, very good at that.”
Sir Michael Barber, first head of the Prime Minster’s Delivery Unit
“He was somebody who was almost entirely guided I think by what he thought worked. I think some other people remarked since his death that none of us knew what his politics were, and I think that is perfectly true, but I think I did have a sense of what he believed in more or less, which was just about any policy that would do what it set out to do.”
Oliver Letwin, former Cabinet Office minister
…champion of the civil service
“I last saw Jeremy in the spring. His office called and requested my presence. Christ, I thought, what have I done? Turns out he wanted to thank me for the work we’ve been doing defending civil service impartiality, following attacks from within and out-with government.
"We talked about the damage this was doing and the impact it could have in undermining trust in government, not just the civil service.
"It’s not every day the cabinet secretary thanks you, so I wanted to keep the conversation going. I asked how he was and about his plans, saying that journalists always ask when he’s going and talk of plots to oust him.
"He laughed, saying: “I’ve got the all clear, I’m still a young man but I couldn’t go without seeing the Brexit process through.”
"He could have walked into any boardroom in the country, likely tripling his salary. 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. Such a tragic loss.”
Dave Penman, general secretary, FDA
“Jeremy was always proud of the institution, and protective of its people from public criticism they could not themselves answer.”
Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
...speaking truth to power
“Jeremy was uniquely effective in that position between politics and administration. And he had to make some very difficult calls. And whether or not you agreed with the call he made you never doubted his integrity and commitment to good government.”
Sir Martin Donnelly, former permanent secretary, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
“Jeremy was someone who challenged everything. I mean he could be an awful nuisance because you’d think you’ve got something fairly straightforward and he’d say, “look cab sec, I wonder if this is right?” And he would find some incredibly powerful argument that no one else had noticed but which was absolutely right to raise.”
Lord Wilson, former cabinet secretary
“I never felt he held back in his advice. He always knew there was a time and a place to do these things – it’s more one-on-one than in a crowded room, so often people don’t hear the conversation that a PPS or cabinet secretary has with a prime minister, that’s the point.”
David Cameron, former prime minster
“The thing I admired most about him was his bravery in speaking truth unto power on some of the most difficult issues.
I worked very closely with him for two years, and during frankly quite a testing period: I saw first hand when he was willing to say things and do things. Others may not have; they may not have been aware that he was willing to take issues up in that way. 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 really mattered to do so.”
Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service
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