Notes on Jeremy’s life: Suzanne Heywood remembers the cabinet secretary in songs and policies

Suzanne Heywood’s biography of Jeremy Heywood gives an extraordinary insight into the late cabinet secretary’s time in government and at home. She speaks to Beckie Smith about recording her husband’s life, what he would have made of the coronavirus crisis, and the music he loved
Jeremy and Suzanne Heywood


Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots may not strike you as the most likely track to appear on a cabinet secretary’s playlist of favourites. Nor would the Flaming Lips’ dreamy synth-pop hit put most people in mind of the 2000 fuel crisis.

But when it came to dividing her late husband’s life into chapters, Suzanne Heywood says it seemed only natural that Jeremy Heywood’s favourite songs provided the titles. Each chronicles a crisis, a change of government, the development of a new policy or a step towards civil service reform. Yoshimi – who has a black belt in karate and is fighting to defeat the “evil machines” – marks the government’s handling of the protests sparked by rising fuel costs. “It did feel like that was quite a battle, as it were. And it was one of his favourite songs, so it had to go somewhere,” Heywood says.

Readers learn early on in What does Jeremy think? that one of his prized possessions when he went to university was a turntable his parents had given him. That love of music carried on strong throughout his life, so the chapter titles were, says Heywood, a way to “bring a little bit more Jeremy in”.

But the playlist from which the book’s titles are borrowed was compiled near the end of Jeremy’s life, when he was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. Heywood recalls: “When he started doing radiotherapy, he had to go into this big machine and lie there quite still for quite a long time. And he came back and he said he hated it. And I said, ‘Why did you hate it?’ He said he hated the whine of the machine – he hated all medical things anyway – and just to make it all worse, he had to listen to terrible music playing through the speakers. I thought, ‘I can’t do anything about the first couple of things, but I can sort out the music.’”

So Heywood bought him an MP3 player, taught him to use Spotify and made a playlist of 20 songs. “He came out saying, ‘Well, that was a lot better. The only problem is that they told me off because I’m not allowed to hum during radiotherapy because it upsets the machine.’” For the next year and a half – the remainder of Jeremy’s life – the pair continued to add to the playlist as he listened to it on repeat during his many hospital visits. From it, Heywood would later choose REM’s Everybody Hurts to recount the strife of negotiating a coalition government; Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me Out for a reshuffle; the Bee Gees’ How Deep Is Your Love for plebgate and David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership.

Heywood, an executive and former Treasury civil servant, always knew she wanted to write her husband’s biography. “I never had any doubt about that, I told him for many years,” she says.

Of course, she didn’t picture doing it under the circumstances she did – interviewing Jeremy in his final few months of life, hurrying to write so she could show chapters to him, and conducting scores of interviews after his death for a book that would be published just a couple of years after he stepped down as cab sec. “In an ideal world, we would have done exactly what Jeremy’s predecessors have done: he would have stepped down after a period of time, which he hadn’t decided on; then would have done radio interviews and TV, commentating – as his predecessors do, and they do a fabulous job of that – and in doing so, he would have shared a lot of the learnings that he got from his time in government, and also be able to comment on the issues of the day. Then after a due period, we would have done his biography.”

While there are mixed opinions on the extent to which former top civil servants should opine on the government’s choices once they have left, there is certainly no doubt that after more than 30 years in government, Jeremy Heywood had accrued a huge amount of knowledge and experience from which civil servants could learn.

CSW wonders what Jeremy might have made of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and what his contribution might have been. Heywood says that if Jeremy were around today, he could “absolutely” have contributed to the response. “Having somebody with that depth of experience would, you hope, have been helpful,” she says.

But she says if he had left government, he wouldn’t criticise the response. “He wouldn’t have thrown stones from outside because he would have known from bitter experience how hard these things are to manage with things changing at pace, particularly against this unknown virus that for a lot of the time was only partially understood.”

But he would have wanted to see government learn from the crisis by drawing out the positives – “he would have loved the open policy bit, involving SAGE, the Vaccine Taskforce, bringing in outsiders like Kate Bingham to run that” – and interrogating the rest. “He’d want to ask, ‘Okay, once we get through this and we’re stabilised, let’s really look at what worked, what didn’t work, what can we learn from it? How do we make government better?’”

This was a theme of Jeremy’s career. The book tells of his efforts to reorganise Downing Street, beef up the No.10 Policy Unit, and build skills the civil service lacked. Heywood says he had a “constant dissatisfaction with the status quo, always asking what can be improved, always demanding change”.

This was a frequent talking point at home. Suzanne Heywood’s own four years in the civil service – where she started as a fast streamer, before becoming private secretary to the Treasury financial secretary – meant she understood firsthand the structures Jeremy was working with, while her move to McKinsey after that gave her an outside perspective.

“I was either going to write it then and interview him then or try later without the benefit of his memories. That seemed like a loss”

“We used each other as sounding boards,” she says. “The people things are often harder to solve than the policy things – trying to find a way through things with the various different personalities, or situations where Jeremy wanted to create change and it was a question of how to get that change embedded within the civil service.”

She describes Jeremy as a “magpie” for new ideas. He used an idea she shared from McKinsey, where associates vied to share their best ideas in a prestigious quarterly publication, as the blueprint for the Civil Service Quarterly. “We talked a lot about ideas like that,” Heywood says.

Jeremy would later learn from his own experience in the private sector too, after leaving government for a four-year stint at Morgan Stanley in the 2000s. Returning to the Cabinet Office in 2007, and then Downing Street, he would draw on that experience when he was helping to deal with the financial crisis.

Heywood adds: “By the way, he stole ideas from everybody else as well. At every dinner party, or every event that he went to, he would come away with two or three ideas, or four or five people he was going to connect with somebody else, or something that he was going to do. That’s the kind of restless curiosity he had.”

In summer 2017, soon after Jeremy was diagnosed with lung cancer, the Heywoods began working on a book about his life. “We didn’t get a choice on when to write it, because I was either going to write it then and interview him then or, because he had a terminal illness, I would have to try and write it later but without the benefit of his memories. And that just seemed like a loss,” Heywood says.

Were there any lessons Jeremy was adamant she should get across in the book? Heywood says he was happy for her to tell his story as it unfolded, but she noticed some “very clear themes” emerging. “He was a passionate believer of evidence-based policymaking, and I think that becomes very clear – the first place he goes is to try and work out what’s going on,” she says. “He really strongly believed in open policymaking as well, which is making sure that you involve a wide group of people when you’re thinking about a policy, particularly those who are close to the front line of what’s happening.”

Heywood also interviewed more than 200 of Jeremy’s former colleagues and friends – aided by long texts from her husband with suggested lines of questioning. “I learned a lot during those interviews; I was hugely privileged to be able to do that,” she says.

She learned a huge deal about policy – Jeremy had a long and varied government career, and the book covers his role in everything from negotiations over the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 (Money) to the aftermath of 9/11 (Nothing Will Ever Be The Same) and preparations for Brexit after the 2016 referendum (Begin Again).

But she also learned more about the man she was married to for more than two decades. “What was interesting was learning how people saw him. Several people said to me that they prepped more thoroughly for a meeting with Jeremy than even when they were going in front of a select committee in the House of Commons. And when I said to them ‘Why, were you scared?’ they said, ‘No, we weren’t scared, we loved him. But we really want to impress him, we wanted him to think we’d done a really good job. And he also had this unerring ability to know which piece was the weakest bit of our presentation’. People made huge efforts because they wanted him to think well of them.”

But Heywood’s book is not just a biography of an official. It is also a deeply personal account of her life with Jeremy. It recounts the couple’s struggles to conceive, and attempts by Jeremy – then PPS to Tony Blair – to keep their spirits up with humour during five failed rounds of IVF.

The same chapter also details the work Jeremy became absorbed in at the time – the prime minister’s 10-year plan for the NHS, a spending review, the G7 summit. Heywood writes of feeling “jealous of his ability to compartmentalise our grief” and to throw himself into work.

Former colleagues and friends have often commented admiringly on Jeremy Heywood’s devotion to his work. He was a dedicated public servant who continued working even after being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

“In a bizarre sort of way, for me, his character became really clear as he became sicker,” Heywood says. “His determination to keep working and keep helping the prime minister right through to pretty much the end was absolutely extraordinary.”

“Also infuriating,” she adds. “He just did not want to stop. But his character was very vivid in that last bit, so it was really important to tell that bit of the story.”

“His determination to keep working through to pretty much the end was extraordinary. Also infuriating”

Before embarking on the final chapters that follow that diagnosis, readers might need a stiff drink, Heywood says.

I don’t want to talk about it is an apt soundtrack for the penultimate chapter: the diagnosis is quickly followed by a blur of failed cancer treatments; investigating sexual misconduct allegations against Damian Green; Brexit preparations; a trial for an experimental drug; a reshuffle; an investigation into the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury. The final chapter is even tougher reading – documenting the cabinet secretary’s final days and his family’s grief.

It’s hard not to wonder why someone would choose to put themselves through that relentless work schedule amid the whirl - wind of gruelling treatments and bad news.

“He really thought he was making a difference,” Heywood says. “Mrs May needed his help and he felt he was making a difference. One thing that really upset him when he finally did have to stop was just watching the television and going, ‘I really want to help; I really want to be there.’

“And then I think it was a displacement thing as well,” she adds. “So people can criticise [his decision], but for him, it was immensely helpful to focus on some - thing that he knew he did tremendously well and was making a difference doing, and not focus on something that was really so awful. The book served a similar purpose, actually, at the same time.”

What Does Jeremy Think? Jeremy Heywood and the Making of Modern Britain is published by William Collins

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