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Tribute to Jeremy Heywood: Whitehall has lost one of its all-time greats

4 min read

Sir Jeremy Heywood was proud of the Civil Service and protective of its people from public criticism. Above all, he had a devout sense of duty and loyalty to the country, writes Bernard Jenkin

When Jeremy Heywood first took over as Cabinet Secretary, the decision split the role and to appoint a Permanent Secretary as Head of the Civil Service (HCS) reinforced an impression that he would be more courtier and fixer around the powerful, rather than the bulwark of independence and impartiality which Civil Service sorely needed at that time. This was when Francis Maude was pursuing many needed reforms but also challenging parts of the Northcote Trevelyan settlement.

At his first appearance in front of PASC (now PACAC) in 2012, Jeremy said his intention was to be “as invisible as possible” and that the HCS would be equal in importance to his own role. In our report on Civil Service Leadership of January 2012, we endorsed former Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler’s prediction that the Cabinet Secretary would always be “top dog”. So it proved.

Jeremy was perhaps too modest to see himself in the same light as Armstrong or Butler and perhaps wanted to concentrate on what he knew he was best at, but the Civil Service is an institution in which the person must grow to fill the role. In quite a short time, he was carrying his office with the authority of his predecessors. When Sir Bob Kerslake retired as HCS in September 2014, Jeremy added that responsibility, which had implicitly fallen on his shoulders from day one.

Jeremy was always proud of the institution, and protective of its people from public criticism they could not themselves answer. He tended to insist that the glass was half full, when we needed to focus on the empty part. The collapse of the West Coast Mainline franchising was a crunch. I went to see both Jeremy and Bob to brief them on my article in the FT the next day, announcing a new PASC inquiry into the Civil Service and calling for a Royal Commission. Jeremy wanted to reassure me that would not be necessary. Bob was more concerned that the crisis was symptomatic of a wider malaise. It is of credit to both that the Department for Transport was allowed to pore over the mess in order to learn from the failure. And openness about failure and learning from it has become embedded in Civil Service culture, with the West Coast Main line fiasco being a case study that is taught on courses.

Sometimes Jeremy stuck to a hopeless government line, such as that referendum purdah had to go or government would not function (we had purdah and everything was fine), or that the SpAds’ code did not prohibit SpAds from political canvassing (even though it said that explicitly). As I grew to know him better, I saw hints over how he may have agonised about the dilemmas his political masters faced him with. None of us get everything right.

My favourite memory is when we met for Breakfast in the Cinnamon Club just after the EU referendum. He breezed in as usual, smiling and courteous. I had expected to find him crest fallen about the Leave victory and the political crisis. “Well, it’s a big change of policy, and we are getting a new prime minister, so we will have to turn everything on a sixpence,” he said. He added with a winning smile: “But that’s what we do!”.

Leave supporters lament the lack of positive advice ministers have been given about Brexit, but I have only ever felt sympathy for officials trying to deliver policy under a divided cabinet, which has provided so little clear leadership. Jeremy was ready to turn the ship, but in the end, it is ministers who determine what happens, not officials. He was broken hearted to be forced to leave Whitehall amidst all this, above all because he relished such a sense of duty and loyalty to the country. 

Bernard Jenkin is Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex and chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

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