Abbey service celebrates life of Jeremy Heywood

Laughter and tears as prime ministers, former colleagues and a pop star pay tribute to late cabinet secretary

Lord Gus O'Donnell speaks at the thanksgiving service for Sir Jeremy Heywood Credit: Westminster Abbey

By Jim.Dunton

21 Jun 2019

Theresa May and her three prime-ministerial predecessors joined family, friends and former colleagues of Sir Jeremy Heywood for a for a service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey.

In addition to the Civil Service Choir, pop star-turned-radio-presenter Cerys Matthews performed at Thursday’s service honouring the life and achievements of the late cabinet secretary, who died at the age of 56 in November last year.

Despite his untimely death from cancer, which came just days after he stood down formally from the job that had been the pinnacle of his career, the service included laugher in memory of Heywood – latterly Lord Heywood of Whitehall – some of it generated by Theresa May.


Heywood’s widow Suzanne; children Jonathan, Elizabeth and Peter; and brother Simon gave readings at the service. His successor as cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill introduced a video tribute. 

Prayers were read by former colleagues Sue Gray, permanent secretary at the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland; Cabinet Office driver Barry Wells; former deputy director of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit Dame Louise Casey; and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government perm sec Melanie Dawes.

Long-time friend and predecessor as cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell spoke of Heywood’s devotion to the “three Ps” of policy, politics and parties when they met as young civil servants working at HM Treasury more than three decades ago. 

“All of us who had the privilege to work closely with him are still mourning the loss of a loyal friend, who would brighten up our days, fix our problems and was always up for the next challenge”  – Lord Gus O'Donnell 

“We got on so well that when I departed for a spell in our embassy in Washington, Jeremy and friends moved into our house in Clapham,” he said.

“The parties continued, I’m told, and judging by the state of our house when we returned, they were very good parties. Despite this, we remained great friends.” 

O'Donnell said that shortly after his return from Washington DC, he and Heywood we were engaged in handling the Black Wednesday financial crisis of September 1992.

“Jeremy loved finding a way through crises, seeing them as an opportunity, not just a threat. He worked closely with the then chancellor, Norman Lamont, to build the inflation-targeting regime, which to this day lies at the heart of our monetary policy arrangements,” O'Donnell recalled. 

“Norman described him as the perfect private secretary, which actually was just as well since Jeremy went on to have many similar jobs, managing multiple crises throughout his career.”

O’Donnell talked about how, in addition to meeting future wife Suzanne at the Treasury, Heywood had served as a “trusted broker” between the occupants of Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street during the New Labour years, when the respective occupants were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

One of the service’s many laughs came when O’Donnell recalled the mountain of work Heywood and Ed Balls – then an economic adviser to chancellor Gordon Brown – had done together on the “five tests” against which any UK decision to join the euro was to be assessed.

“A solution was found, and nobody resigned… those were the days,” O’Donnell said to much amusement. 

“This was but one example of Jeremy’s ability to be the perfect interface between ministers, special advisers and the civil service.”

O’Donnell said Heywood would be particularly pleased to see David Cameron and Nick Clegg at the service, “reminding us that collaboration between parties – particularly at times of national crisis – can work extremely well”. 

The former cabinet secretary said he had thought a lot recently about what Heywood would think about the current impasse on Brexit. 

“I know he would want to reassure the next prime minister of the resolve of the civil service to implement as effectively as possible whatever decision is made,” he said. 

“In return, I know he would hope that ministers would show their support and respect for our brilliant, impartial civil service – the institution he so loved and championed. 

“All of us who had the privilege to work closely with him are still mourning the loss of a loyal friend, who would brighten up our days, fix our problems and was always up for the next challenge. 

“He lorded it over Whitehall for so many years that it is truly fitting we are here to say farewell not to Sir Jeremy, but to Lord Heywood of Whitehall.

“I miss him as a true and trusted friend. We all miss him, and the country is poorer for his absence in public life. But his legacy lives on in the form of a stronger, more agile, truly impartial civil service.”

The Civil Service Choir, conducted by Stephen Hall, sang “O Radiant Dawn”, “Amazing Grace”, “The Lord is my Shepherd” and the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”.

Cerys Matthews, a founding member of 1990s rock band Catatonia, performed the Bob Dylan song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”.

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