Caroline Slocock: The Greensill review's treatment of Jeremy Heywood is blatantly unfair

Refusing to hear evidence from the late cab sec's widow is an unfortunate look for a government with a track record of treating civil servants badly
Jeremy Heywood: the supply-chain finance review "singled him out for harsh judgement". Photo: Paul Heartfield for CSW

By Caroline Slocock

29 Jul 2021

 

I was saddened to hear Jeremy Heywood’s widow, Suzanne, talking on the Today programme about what she sees as his unfair treatment by the inquiry into the Greensill affair, which singled him out for harsh judgement and very largely let David Cameron off the hook.

The report from Nigel Boardman, who led the supply-chain finance review, put the former cabinet secretary squarely at the centre of the Greensill affair, saying it was Heywood who introduced the firm's founder to the Treasury and gave him access to several Whitehall departments. It stated that the then cabinet minister Francis Maude did not recall approving the appointment, though he was aware of it, despite official papers referring to his authorisation. Separately, in evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Maude said he must have approved Greensill's appointment to avoid “a fight” with Heywood.

Suzanne has said she has evidence her husband was carrying out ministers’ wishes, rather than acting off his own bat, but Boardman refused to look at it, inventing a rule that it could only hear from eye-witnesses. If she had evidence from her husband’s private papers, why was this not heard and judged on its own merits? Instead, Boardman told her that her submissions had not even been read and only called her in at the last minute to read the conclusions of the report to her and then, in her view, only to avoid legal challenge.

This strikes me as blatantly unfair, and an unfortunate look for a man whose credentials to carry out this “independent” inquiry have also been questioned –Boardman is both a departmental non-exec and former Conservative Party candidate –and for a government which is developing a track record of treating its civil servants badly. There’s Mark Sedwill, who before stepping down was the subject of poisonous briefings in the media against him. And Philip Rutnam, who – after raising allegations of bullying of junior staff by Priti Patel – eventually felt he had to resign and launch a tribunal case against her after similar briefings from “sources” about him in the media. When the independent adviser on ministerial standards, Alex Allan, concluded that bullying by the home secretary had taken place, he was overruled by the prime minister, and resigned as well.

I knew Jeremy from our time in the Treasury. In the early nineties, we were both working on reform of that institution after Black Wednesday, when the UK fell out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Jeremy was undertaking a review of senior management which led to a quarter being made redundant, deploying in a typically hard-headed way the latest business thinking that hierarchies needed to be flattened and “dead wood” (mostly people over the age of 50) should be cut out. I was leading on management reforms to create a better skill set for Treasury officials, which included better communication and listening skills and a more outward-looking focus.

"This strikes me as an unfortunate look for a man whose credentials to carry out this 'independent' inquiry have also been questioned and for a government which is developing a track record of treating its civil servants badly"

Jeremy was thoroughly committed to the Thatcherite view, which has continued under successive governments, that the civil service needs business disciplines and expertise. Initiated by ministers, these reforms were executed by civil servants, and that long road eventually led to the dubious appointment of Lex Greensill. Although ministers cannot remember authorising that appointment, it was Maude who had recently changed a key civil service competency from “achieving outcomes” to “achieving commercial outcomes”, which is “about identifying economic, market and customer issues and using these to promote innovative business models, commercial partnerships and agreements to deliver greatest value”. In the same year, 2012, as the Boardman review points out, the government also launched the Civil Service Reform Plan, which included a commitment to "learning from the best of the private sector" through ministerial appointment of a small number of time-limited executive/management roles.

Jeremy Heywood was unusual in that he spent almost all of his career working directly with ministers, much of it at No.10. He became indispensable to successive Labour and Conservative governments and prime ministers, doubtless working across all hours, as he did in the Treasury when I knew him. The least he might expect in return is courteous and fair treatment of his widow.

"Although ministers cannot remember authorising Greensill's appointment, it was Maude who had recently changed a key civil service competency from 'achieving outcomes' to 'achieving commercial outcomes'"

At an earlier point, I too worked at No.10, as a private secretary to Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and I have written about the experience in People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me. Her downfall occurred because of the poll tax and divisions over Europe but it was partly accelerated in my view by her becoming too close to some of her No.10 civil servants, most notably Charles Powell and Bernard Ingham, to the detriment of her relationship with her party and her ministers. There’s no doubt that it is a tricky relationship for civil servants and ministers to get right, and after that period there was a turning point. Most key roles around prime ministers are now held by political appointees who come and go. But Jeremy Heywood managed to maintain the confidence not just of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but also David Cameron and Theresa May.

But it is Boris Johnson who is responsible for the Boardman review and it is during his watch that the examples I have given here have happened. There are fundamental questions for him to answer about whether the government’s relationship with business is too close, as I think it is, why the services of ex-prime ministers can apparently be “bought”, and whether the critical bond of trust between ministers and their civil servants is being undermined by recent events. Without that good working relationship, ministers can promise but will struggle to deliver.

Caroline Slocock is a former senior civil servant, the director of Civil Exchange and co-convenor of cross-sector leadership network A Better Way, and author of People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me.

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