Working to make government more effective


The smartest guy in the room: an appreciation of Jeremy Heywood

Jeremy Heywood was a great friend to the Institute for Government, but more importantly was an example of just how good the civil service can be. 

Jeremy Heywood was a great friend to the Institute for Government, but more importantly was an example of just how good the civil service can be. 

In the summer of 2010, I was sitting in the kitchen of Jeremy and Suzanne’s house. The Coalition had just taken over. Jeremy was fielding calls from Nick Clegg’s new private secretary as they tried to work out how to make an unprecedented arrangement work with a Cabinet that almost completely lacked any ministerial experience. But those phone calls didn’t stop Jeremy giving me a ticking off (maybe friendly personal advice): my career had stalled and I had “done the same job forever”.

It was only on the train back that I thought of a witty response. It wasn’t me who had done the same job forever. It was Jeremy. For the last 20 years – and for eight more to come, he had, with a couple of notable exceptions, done the same job, at ever more senior levels: acting as the essential, indispensable person who could make ministers work effectively with their colleagues, with the civil service and help them deliver their objectives and guide them through every problem they encountered.

Wind back to my first encounters with Jeremy in the Treasury. There had been whispers around the building that the monetary policy division had recruited – maybe rescued – an incredibly bright young economist from the outpost of the Health and Safety Executive. The young economist suddenly made an improbable career move: he became Private Secretary to the Financial Secretary.

This job usually went to the star fast streamer of the administrative intake (David Willetts was a predecessor), not an economist. Suddenly a stream of incredibly lucid minutes under the name of Norman Lamont appeared before every Monday afternoon Budget meeting. That was an early sign of Jeremy’s supreme talent: making ministers effective.

From then on, Jeremy was allowed out only on temporary release from the demands of private office. When Lamont was Chief Secretary, the partnership was recreated – and then moved on into the Chancellor’s office when John Major became Prime Minister.

It was from there that Jeremy managed his first full-blown crisis – the fallout from the UK’s forced departure from the ERM and the collapse of the economic policy framework that depended on it. He survived Lamont and then showed he could work with a very different Minister: Ken Clarke.

His prize for prolonged ministerial service was to be sent off to Harvard – and to come back with a remit from then Permanent Secretary Terry Burns to haul the Treasury into the late 20th century. Treasury jobs were cut, layers chopped out – and Jeremy met his future wife, a dynamic fast streamer, Suzanne Cook. They were very keen to keep their relationship private – when I outed their engagement in the Treasury in-house magazine gossip column, they both complained.

His last job in the Treasury was an obscure deputy directorship of a team looking at money laundering – where he was when Labour came to power in 1997. But he was not allowed to languish in obscurity for long. He moved to No.10 and (with a timeout in the mid-noughties to work in the City) never left the Downing Street/Cabinet Office complex again. 

He rose from economic affairs private secretary to principal private secretary to Blair, then to chief of staff to Brown, then to a specially-created role of Permanent Secretary at No.10 (sole ever occupant J Heywood, where he helped steer the UK through the financial meltdown of 2008) and finally, with supreme inevitability, Cabinet Secretary. Jeremy defied every convention about the experience you need to perform these roles. But was also clearly the only candidate any Prime Minister would consider.

The work of private office is visible internally but not externally.,but as Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy was forced to have a more public profile.

He came to the Institute for Government to talk about the role of the Cabinet Secretary – and to chair a discussion with five of his predecessors to mark 100 years of the Cabinet Office. His appearances were so rare that a seemingly trivial remark always managed to make front page news. Eventually he took back the role of Head of the Civil Service, championed diversity in all its dimensions and grew more comfortable with visible public leadership.

As Cabinet Secretary he presided over the renaissance of the Cabinet Office after its years in the doldrums under Tony Blair. It was a key part of the machinery to make coalition work. David Cameron swept away Tony Blair’s Strategy and Delivery Units: but Jeremy created a policy capacity in the Cabinet Office projects team, built up a horizon-scanning function – and hid the Delivery Unit in the Treasury until Cameron realised his early mistake and it was reformed and rebranded as the Implementation Unit.

He championed policy innovation – for example through enthusiastic sponsorship of the behavioural insights team. He navigated the move from Cameron to May and moved swiftly to set up the machinery needed to oversee UK exit from the EU and staff it with many of the people he had talent-spotted and developed over the years.

Just writing a list of all he was involved in is exhausting. Jeremy had an immense ability to work, to be on top of everything. But he also had an immense capacity for family, for friends and for fun. It is just incredibly sad that that capacity is now denied us all far, far too soon.

Civil servants
Cabinet Office
Institute for Government

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