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What Does Jeremy Think? Suzanne Heywood’s moving study of her late husband

Jeremy Heywood | Alamy

4 min read

Suzanne Heywood has produced an important and gripping account of her husband’s extraordinary career at the centre of government

Suzanne Heywood’s biography of her late husband is both a devoted act of someone who will forever mourn her loss and an important personal historical record of so many of the political events and controversies that coincided with their life together. You are left in no doubt of their deep love and respect for each other. Suzanne wants to keep her maiden name, but seeing how disappointed he is, she compromises, and says if they get married, “we will all be called Heywoods”. To compensate she insists she takes the right to choose the names of their children. 

The sheer fun of their relationship, accompanied by bitter pain as they struggled with IVF to have their first child, is the backdrop to Jeremy’s all-consuming career, but a world which Suzanne, as herself a one-time civil servant, understands with the same devotion and support. 

This creates a personal warmth and security behind the catalogue of political feuding and national catastrophes in which Jeremy played a central role, from his early days as speechwriter for then-financial secretary Norman Lamont to his final days as cabinet secretary. After the EU referendum, addressing the top 200 civil servants, Jeremy describes Brexit as “a more significant international relations challenge than Iraq, a more profound constitutional challenge than the coalition, a more challenging policy issue than the financial crisis, and a more substantial economic challenge than the ERM”. He should know; he had been at the centre of government for every one of them. This extraordinary career makes the whole book a gripping read for anyone who has lived through these decades.

It also suggests why the civil service lacked a more creative approach towards leaving the EU. Nevertheless, Jeremy was determined that Whitehall should embrace it. He told me he would turn Whitehall “on a sixpence”. Even before the referendum result, he had approached Olly Robins about being chief negotiator. Jeremy rightly resisted the creating of the superfluous DExEU but failed.

Jeremy got lots of stick from Brexiteers – unfairly in my view

Ultimately, no civil servant can advance a policy unless ministers agree. The narrative suggests that Jeremy and Olly were predisposed to a ‘hybrid’ Brexit option, for continuing the application of EU tariffs on UK imports, as the way to avoid a hard border in Ireland (“a clever technological solution” was never seriously entertained). This would become the ill-fated Irish Backstop. Ending up with a Remain-supporting PM to implement Brexit was always going to be trouble. This book should leave nobody in any doubt that Jeremy would have responded positively to challenge this “groupthink” (something Jeremy cautioned against after Chilcot).

Jeremy got lots of stick from Brexiteers – unfairly in my view. He was too ill to attend the Chequers cabinet, but he comments afterwards with prescience: “We have a referendum result, and we have what our elected MPs want. And in the gap between the two, our democracy is ripping itself apart.”

By now Jeremy, in and out of hospital, increasingly off work, was slowly dying. Suzanne’s agony and courage are a counterpoint to his still consuming interest in what the government was doing. Jeremy’s determination to appear before PACAC even when ill and exhausted is not something we inflicted but an invitation he chose to accept. Even then we still saw flashes of his warmth and humour. This book leaves you with the feeling that you wished you had known him better and had talked more, and wanting to ask, “What would Jeremy think now?”


Sir Bernard Jenkin is Conservative MP for Harwich & North Essex and former chair of PACAC

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

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