Remembering Jeremy Heywood: A tribute to the late cabinet secretary
Jess Bowie and Suzannah Brecknell explore some of the many ways Lord Heywood touched and inspired those he worked with
Photo: Sir Jeremy Heywood photographed for CSW by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Jeremy Heywood shot up the ranks of the civil service at an unprecedented rate, catching the eye of chancellors and prime ministers and remaining at the heart of power for decades. Outside Whitehall and Westminster, he was barely known and, when he did become a more public figure, he was often caricatured by the press as a shadowy, stuffy mandarin.
But speak to the people he worked with, and a very different picture emerges. A loyal and much-loved leader, with an immense capacity for friendship. Formidable and demanding, yet unstintingly supportive of his colleagues. That Heywood possessed a planet-sized brain, an infinite capacity for work and a highly creative streak for tackling the knottiest policy problems is well-known, but it was just as much his empathy, emotional intelligence, and loyalty that made him the outstanding civil servant of his generation.
How different from Heywood’s first experience under a Whitehall leader. In 1983, aged 21 and new to the civil service, he found himself working at the Health and Safety Executive. His boss there was warm, enthusiastic – and had a penchant for going to the pub at lunchtime and sinking five or six pints.
“I’d just come out of university, so I knew how to drink pints of beer. But I didn’t really think this was what you did at work,” Heywood once told an amused audience at Civil Service Live. But, the cabinet secretary added, this was also a lesson in the art of delegation; to get things done, particularly in the afternoons, his boss “quickly saw that the gopher who’d just arrived was the one to trust”.
Heywood didn’t remain a reliable gopher for long. Soon he was whisked away to the Treasury to become private secretary to the financial secretary – Norman Lamont – where he impressed colleagues with his lucid briefing notes and Lamont himself with his constructive advice. When Heywood left the civil service for a spell at the IMF, he joked with Lamont that, should the minister get a cabinet post, Heywood would come back and work for him. A year later Lamont, newly promoted to chancellor, called Heywood and asked him to become head of his private office – to the slight concern of HMT officials who felt that the 29-year-old was too young to take such a senior post.
Yet it was here that Heywood demonstrated his natural instinct for leadership: “He didn’t just run an efficient office, but was genuinely very caring of all the people who worked in the office and was very conscious of their circumstances,” the now Lord Lamont tells CSW. “I think that is one key to his success...he could see where people were coming from.”
Heywood also met a young David Cameron, then Lamont’s political adviser, on whom he made a lasting impression. “Almost my strongest memory of Jeremy, despite everything he did for me [as prime minister], was walking into the chancellor’s private office when I was 26 and there was this incredibly young guy who was fully in command of the most important department of state,” Cameron says. “He immediately struck me as someone with an immense brain, huge charm and also a great ability to inspire and lead people.”
“I remember walking into the chancellor’s private office and there was this incredibly young guy who was fully in command of the most important department of state”
Those who worked with Heywood in the early days remember not just a Whitehall wunderkind but a man with a healthy appetite for parties and going out. He was also unconventional. Lord O’Donnell – whom Heywood later succeeded as cabinet secretary – recalls a “very bright” but also “very different” young man. “Soon after arriving in the Treasury he decided to go on a holiday to Albania – not exactly a normal choice in those days,” O’Donnell says.
Another former cabinet secretary, Lord Wilson, sees Heywood’s relish for socialising as part of his success – and a natural flipside to his immense capacity for hard work. “You cannot be as Jeremy was without having quite a hinterland, without having quite a rounded character behind it,” Wilson tells CSW.
After a stint at Harvard Business School, Heywood was asked by then-permanent secretary, now Lord Terry Burns to carry out a review of the Treasury. The results of that exercise hinted at the reforms he would later champion as head of the civil service. According to Melanie Dawes, then a young economist at HMT, the review brought in wide-ranging changes, “cutting management layers, placing new emphasis on leadership and people skills, and bringing economists into policymaking”.
For Heywood, the review had another, more personal impact. It was while leading it that he met his future wife, Suzanne. The couple went to great lengths to keep their relationship secret, even after they were engaged. When colleague Jill Rutter announced the engagement in the department’s internal magazine, Chequerboard, the future Mr and Mrs Heywood weren’t pleased – and made sure to let Rutter know.
Settling into family life with Suzanne – now Lady Heywood – and their three children did not diminish Heywood’s enjoyment of socialising. “He inspired admiration, respect and affection in his many and diverse group of friends and returned it to them. Jeremy could light up any room or conversation and loved hosting a good party,” Suzanne wrote in a statement following his death.
Rutter, now programme director at the Institute for Government, says it was striking at social events “just how many of the people he had worked with in different roles, were clearly also people that he was personally friends with. People stayed in his orbit.”
Heywood’s ability to build strong, trusting relationships also helped to cement his reputation as a consummate Whitehall operator. It was these qualities, just as much as his intellect, that made him an invaluable adviser to four prime ministers, and also enabled him to broker solutions to tricky situations like – in the words of Lord Wilson – “a tightrope walker: confidently, without looking down”.
Such diplomacy was often crucial to keeping the government itself afloat. During the Blair-Brown years, and the attendant civil war between No 10 and No 11, Heywood, as Blair’s PPS, and Ed Balls, as Gordon Brown’s spad, acted as vital intermediaries between the two camps. Later, Heywood would help to keep the coalition government on track. As David Cameron puts it: “He had a good understanding of the politics, of the people, and of the egos.”
“He used a bit of warmth, charm and a lot of empathy to understand where people were coming from in order to get things done”
This emotional intelligence also made him a highly effective – though demanding – manager.
“He always had that ability to want to get straight to the issue at hand and progress it into action,” says Rachel Hopcroft, his PPS from 2012 to 2016. “He did that not just by being very transactional, but also by using a bit of warmth, charm and a lot of empathy to understand where people were coming from in order to get things done.
“That was something few people saw,” she continues, “but when they did, they realised why it was that he was so formidable in that job [cabinet secretary] and his previous roles.”
Hopcroft says that while everyone admired Heywood’s brain, and “his ability to turn his mind to any problem of the day”, he had another quality which stood out to her – humility. “The caricature of an official is quite a stuffy, humanities-educated, Latin-speaking grandee and he was just not like that at all. He was quite boyish and quite playful, and had a light and unstuffy quality about him that was very authentic.”
Because of Heywood’s proximity to power through the last four premierships, it almost didn’t matter what his job title was. For at least 20 years, if Heywood asked you to do something, you knew that it was coming from the prime minister and it had to be done. While often daunting and accompanied by near-impossible deadlines, these tasks also came with a clarity of purpose and an implicit pledge of support.
“You knew he would never use anyone’s time unnecessarily, but you also knew that he had the judgment to ensure that if he asked for something, it was needed and it was a priority,” says former permanent secretary Sir Martin Donnelly. Donnelly recalls one particular moment in 2009 when he was preparing to go on secondment to Ofcom. “Jeremy phoned me up and said, ‘We need you to do something about the oil price’.
“And when Jeremy asks you to do that sort of thing, it isn’t a request,” Donnelly says. But crucially, he adds, “you know you’ll get the support”. Sure enough, within three weeks and with Heywood’s help, Donnelly had co-ordinated a conference in Saudi Arabia, with Brown a key speaker, that led to “significant improvements in how the oil markets worked”.
Yet despite these management skills, when Heywood became cabinet secretary in 2012, he was reluctant to take on the head of the civil service role, partly because he was conscious that he had never run anything bigger than No 10. So the latter role was given to Bob – now Lord – Kerslake.
The decision to split the role in two was not without controversy, in part because Kerslake, who had made a name for himself running Sheffield council, had not spent long in Whitehall. But Kerslake tells CSW that Heywood was never among those who were wary of him as an “outsider”.
“I joined DCLG in late 2010 and Jeremy was very supportive of someone who was new into government – you never felt with him that he resented or had doubts about external people coming in. He was always pretty positive about people coming in with new ideas and new approaches.”
The two men happened to live near each other in Clapham, so when Heywood became cabinet secretary and Kerslake civil service chief, they would be driven into work together. This car-sharing led to them being called “Pinky and Perky” – a nickname Heywood “didn’t exactly love,” Kerslake recalls with a laugh. “I think he thought it was a little bit disrespectful.”
When Kerslake left government in late 2014, Heywood stepped into the HCS role and his leadership and commitment to modernising the civil service became more widely apparent. “Most people either end up as executives running things or as policy wonks or part of the entourage around a minister,” says Donnelly. “Jeremy was uniquely good at being in both of those two worlds, linking them together, but making sure that you then produced real outcomes.” He was also, Donnelly says, “uniquely good at wanting to build more capability into the system.”
This desire was first apparent in that Treasury review. Later, Heywood worked closely with Lord Wilson and Sir Michael Barber to set up the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit – a key way to measure policies’ progress which has not only been copied by other countries but has, in differing forms, remained a key feature of the centre of government. In 2009, under Gordon Brown, he helped to establish the Modernising Government programme, which reduced the size of the senior civil service, and as HCS he championed the Brilliant Civil Service reform programme.
During Francis Maude’s five-year stint as minister for the Cabinet Office, that Conservative politician became the public – and often controversial – face of civil service reform. After Maude’s departure in 2015, it felt to some as if the agenda had fallen by the wayside. Yet Heywood was, along with civil service chief executive John Manzoni, steadily pushing forward change. In 2015, he told CSW that reform was “not off the agenda at all. We’re not talking about it – we’re just getting on and doing it!”
This answer, and the legacy of reforms which bear Heywood’s stamp – including a relentless push to improve diversity in Whitehall – affirm Wilson’s description of Heywood as “a quiet dynamo who made things happen”.
This did not stop after he learned he had cancer in 2017. His work as cabinet secretary continued, and so did his support of colleagues. Melanie Dawes recalls the guidance and kindness he offered to her and her officials in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, despite the fact – as she would later find out – he had just received his diagnosis.
Even as his condition worsened, his desire to help colleagues did not let up. He also approached his illness with the same calmness he was known for, and continued to take an interest in the challenges facing his colleagues in government. Kerslake recalls that, after going to see Heywood at home during the summer of 2018, despite the cabinet secretary’s very poor health, he still followed up on issues they had discussed. “I thought that was amazing in the circumstances,” Kerslake says. “He was a very brave man.”
As cabinet secretary, Heywood would periodically invite his predecessors for a sandwich lunch in his office. It was a chance for this select group of individuals to share reflections and advice on carrying out this uniquely challenging role. He hosted one such lunch in October 2017, when he had already received one round of treatment for cancer, but shortly before the official announcement about his health.
“He made no reference to his illness but he impressed us all with his comprehensive grip over the complex issues facing the government,” recalls Lord Butler, cabinet secretary from 1988 to 1998. “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.”
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