The right-hand man

Richard McNeill Douglas

Review of Suzanne Heywood.What does Jeremy think? William Collins. 2021.

‘We are a powder keg about to explode

I need someone like you to lighten the load.’

—‘Right hand man’, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

By any measure Jeremy Heywood was an extraordinary man. His commitment to service was emphasised in his determination to carry on working as Cabinet Secretary, often in great discomfort, almost right up until his death from cancer at the untimely age of 56. His status as the outstanding civil servant of his generation is symbolised by his hospital bed ennoblement: he died as Lord Heywood of Whitehall, no less. The title of Suzanne Heywood’s memoirs of her late husband’s career, What does Jeremy think?—a regularly-uttered question in Downing Street, apparently—reflects the esteem in which his opinion was held.

But is there a more critical story to tell about his career—and, more widely, about Whitehall as a whole in the early twenty-first century? The Greensill lobbying saga is an invitation to take a closer look. As reported in the Times, a release of emails reveals Heywood as personally responsible for foisting the banker Lex Greensill on government departments.

More widely, there is a literature of concerns as to the erosion of the civil service’s status and impartiality. In the analysis of Patrick Diamond, it was during Heywood’s time as Cabinet Secretary that the civil service finally became so ‘promiscuously partisan’ as to represent the ‘end of Whitehall’. Nowhere is this charge better illustrated than over the Brexit referendum, when David Cameron forbade the civil service from planning for a Leave vote. Whatever one thinks of Brexit in principle, the way in which it was implemented after 2016 has been widely described as a policy fiasco; but all such travails might be seen as having their foundation in that original fiasco in public administration.

What light can Suzanne Heywood’s book shed on the integrity of the civil service, and its ability to speak truth to power? Quite a lot, if we read between the lines. But the first thing we learn from What does Jeremy think? is what a good writer Suzanne Heywood is. It’s not just the content of this book that makes it a compelling read, though this is enough in itself: we get a ringside seat at three decades’ worth of headline events, from Black Wednesday through to Brexit, Heywood being nothing if not a man for a crisis.

It’s also the way she handles this material, allowing us vividly to grasp the essence of a succession of national challenges as they were perceived at the heart of government. Written by her, but based on interviews with her husband in his last months (as well as dozens of other politicians and civil servants), this is an intimate, almost first-person account, yet one which retains a certain distance. Given the curious reticence in Jeremy Heywood’s character, this almost certainly ensures a more revealing account than one he would have written himself. What we find, in fact, is a portrait in which strengths and weaknesses—of Heywood himself, as of the British system and culture of government—are twisted, inseparably, about each other.

The key story which emerges is of the growth of an executive office of the Prime Minister and the erosion of cabinet government, giving rise to tensions and dysfunctionalities that Heywood excels at patching over. This he achieves through his personal qualities of social innovation and hard work, and by embodying a neoliberal approach to technocratic governance. In this respect, he works away to advance economic growth and other policies he considers to be in the long-term national interest, often in the absence of political direction, and sometimes against its opposition. In constitutional matters, notably Brexit, however, he treats the political decisions of the Prime Minister as having such an inviolable mandate that he regards them almost as a complete bystander. Personal effectiveness at getting things done is combined with a lack of vision, resulting in a catastrophic failure of public administration. He is the civil servant of his time.

People-first policy-making

Let’s start with some of his outstanding strengths. For such a high-flyer, and a self-effacing economist as well, it’s striking how much of a people-person Heywood was. Anecdotes abound of how supportive he was to those who worked for him, of how promptly he returned everyone’s emails, of how genuinely he strove to promote diversity within the workforce. (A former colleague, who worked in the Cabinet Office in the late Noughties, vouches for these stories in her own recollections.)

Nor were these qualities incidental to his practical success. One of his most effective methods we see in this book is to assemble an ad hoc group of people from different organisations, get them in a room, and start asking straightforward questions. In this way he manages to get them reasoning together so as to apply innovative approaches to difficult problems—from reducing asylum claims, to avoiding an expensive redesign of aircraft carriers, even to getting hold of the right type of salt to grit the roads. His success in relating to people is exemplified when, as Principal Private Secretary to Tony Blair, he becomes, with Ed Balls, the last functioning link between Number 10 and the Treasury.

It’s a further illustration of Heywood’s ability to productively get on with people that, having worked on one side of the Blair-Brown divide, he subsequently works on the other. It is in this role that Heywood’s talents—as those of Brown, a close circle of ministers, and of the senior civil service as a cadre—are shown off to the full, not only in responding to the UK’s financial meltdown but, through leadership of the G20, in averting a global economic depression. Again, despite having risen up the ranks at the Treasury, Heywood shows the flexibility of mind to play an instrumental role in expanding thinking on how to respond to the crisis beyond his old department, which he fears is too conventional in approach. His effectiveness in personally linking up disparate personalities and arms of government around the will of the Prime Minister is such that, on leaving office, Brown leaves his successor a note which reads: ‘the country is in good hands: Jeremy is running it’.

A British Monti?

Heywood’s success as a practical thinker did not go unnoticed; not for nothing do colleagues remember him as ‘the smartest guy in the room’. How, then, was he so persuaded by Lex Greensill as to, not only bring him into the heart of government, but to nominate him, successfully, for a CBE? In an email dating to his time as Cabinet Secretary, Heywood—who befriended Greensill during a four-year stint at an investment bank—described his supply chain finance schemes as ‘free money’. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is: as Craig Berry has set out, such schemes involve a private entity interposing themselves between the state and its suppliers (or even employees), and doing what the state could do cheaply anyway, but for an additional fee—and with the added risks of financial speculation on the value of future streams of payments thrown in. There is no suggestion that Heywood was thinking of any personal financial gain from pushing this scheme, or from other dealings with former City contacts. The suggestion, rather, is of a certain credulousness towards the problem-solving promises of the private sector.

If one aspect of this story is Heywood’s personal commitment to innovation in pursuit of getting things done, another is a general mode of neoliberal governance—the use of the state to create and enforce markets, in the attempt to create more efficient outcomes. In this respect the question, ‘What does Jeremy think?’, is a reflection, not just of his intellect but of his being regarded as a kind of oracle of neoliberal policy-making.

This does not mean he was thought of as being politically right-wing; as a civil servant he prided himself on his impartiality, and Jonathan Powell, who worked with Heywood in Number 10, observed that he ‘didn’t have a political bone in his body’. But this is just it: in his role as an original policy-maker Heywood embodied the neoliberal practice of sidestepping or neutralising politics, so that market-based interventions could be introduced and enforced. His is a world in which markets will naturally lead to better outcomes, and the environment can be safely boxed off as a second-order priority.

Even in his role as Principal Private Secretary to Tony Blair (think Bernard in Yes, Prime Minister), Heywood comes to exert a sizeable influence on the policies of the New Labour government. An exchange during a meeting of New Labour advisers gathered in Number 10 to discuss Blair’s agenda for NHS reform is revealing.

‘What if we add in choice?’ Heywood asks. Think how helpful it would be for parents with small children to choose a GP with opening hours that suit them, he suggests. ‘We’ve already seen how allowing parents to have a choice of school impacts education standards and we’re expecting school vouchers to have a similar effect.’

Not everyone is convinced. But Blair is intrigued and, after more argument, convinced to adopt both choice and contestability—making it easier for private companies to provide public services—in the NHS.

Such is Blair’s respect for his opinion that, even once he has left the civil service for a job in the City, Heywood twice joins the Prime Minister to discuss preparations for a third term. ‘Each time, he enouraged Blair to go further on public sector reform, for example by pursuing academy schools, allowing more private provision in the NHS and reforming lone parent benefits to encourage parents to go back to work from when the youngest child reached eleven rather than sixteen.’

Heywood also exerts a negative influence where proposals cut against his economist training. When Railtrack becomes insolvent, the preferred solution of Andrew Adonis, then a Labour adviser, is to nationalise it—but Heywood argues against, on the grounds that, ‘Nationalisation led to years of under-investment in the railways.’ When Gordon Brown is looking to introduce a graduate tax, Heywood argues successfully for tuition fees, on the grounds that by turning students into consumers, and enabling universities to compete on price and quality, it will drive up standards. Later, he rehearses the same arguments in helping Nick Clegg to drop his party’s objections to tuition fees.

Elsewhere, Heywood expresses admiration for Keynes, and it is clear that his economics has its ‘saltwater’, Krugmanesque leanings. He reveals this side both in the midst of the financial crash, where he is on the side of those who want to nationalise HBOS, and under Cameron, where he worries about the impact of spending cuts. In the latter case, he does not challenge the Chancellor’s austerity programme, but suggests some policies that might soften its effects—raising money by restarting the privatisation programme, stimulating economic growth by cutting corporation and capital gains tax, raising personal allowances, and subsidising house purchases (a policy he works up into Help to Buy).

In other areas Heywood presses on with a policy agenda seemingly of his own. His most consistent intervention is on airport expansion. Repeatedly, he seeks to press the governments he works for to expand the UK’s airport capacity. He does this for two reasons: first, he is convinced it is in the country’s long-term economic interests; second, it is a proposal that keeps getting mired in political opposition. It thus falls to him, in his mind, to keep cajoling his ministers into making progress:

Jeremy knew, of course, how politically difficult this issue was. A new runway was ruled out in the Coalition Agreement, it didn’t fit with the Prime Minister’s aspiration of creating the ‘greenest government ever’, and several senior Liberal Democrat and Conservative ministers had parliamentary seats under potential flight paths. […] But the economic benefits […] were also clear.

Such is his identification with this policy that, near the end of his life, when his wife asks him what he views as his legacy, he replies: ‘Heathrow. I’ve tried to keep the possibility of expanding airport capacity alive for over a decade. [… And] they can’t take that away from me.’

Seen in this light, that valedictory note of Brown’s, in which he describes Heywood as running the country, takes on a deeper tone. Heywood appears to see his role as making progress on the tough decisions for the long-term national interest, especially where policies have got bogged down in politics, or politicians shown themselves incapable of facing down popular opposition. Whom does he start to resemble, in this respect, but the UK’s own Monti or Draghi, an orthodox economist who is on some level running the government—or trying to—along technocratic lines?

Fixer, courtier, chief minister

Leaving aside the economistic orientation of his policy-making, Heywood’s style as a bureaucrat, and his relationship with the machinery of the civil service, is another field in which we can see strengths and weaknesses in combination.

One of the major themes in Suzanne Heywood’s book concerns the dysfunctional relationship between Number 10 and government departments. Examples such as MAFF’s handling of the foot and mouth crisis fuel interest within Downing Street for new structures to beef up its capabilities, bringing departments more within its vision and control. John Birt, Tony Blair’s ‘blue sky’ thinker, proposes merging Number 10 with the Cabinet Office, with some talk of turning the QEII Conference Centre into the PM’s version of the Chancellery in Berlin. While the most ambitious aspects of this scheme soon fall away, Heywood expects the core ideas to be put into effect—and is surprised when they are vetoed by the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, on the grounds they would erode cabinet government. The main structural proposal that survives is the creation of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. But its influence withers with Blair’s exit.

When invited back into Number 10 by Gordon Brown’s team, Heywood returns from his job in the City to find a government in chaos. A tour around the office reveals cupboards full of unanswered letters and unread policy submissions. In a revealing line, Suzanne Heywood writes that Jeremy was ‘starting to worry about how he would ensure the Prime Minister’s initiatives were implemented once he’d found a way to get them decided’. He sees his first job, that is, as being to establish what government policy actually is, before ensuring that departments implement it. Other officials complain that Brown, in his preference for working on speeches and articles rather than attending regular policy meetings, does not understand how to make Number 10 work. Heywood disagrees, ruling it is down to his staff to adapt their practices to those of the Prime Minister. The method Heywood hits on is to insert policy ideas into the drafts of articles Brown is working on, and, if he does not cross them out, assume the Prime Minister has agreed to them. Thus government policy is established via the prompting of officials.

This passage is instructive regarding the disintegration of cabinet government, and its eclipse by an often dysfunctional executive office of the Prime Minister. Suzanne Heywood comments that these techniques worked well enough for the most part, though less so ‘if someone needed to resolve an urgent agricultural policy question while the Prime Minister was drafting a speech on monetary policy’. The question left unaddressed here is: what exactly is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs for, if not to rule on such questions?

Cameron’s government has its own dysfunctionalities. At one point Heywood is involved in a plan to physically block Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change, from attending a meeting with the Prime Minister, so as to prevent his objecting to proposals to water down the Government’s green energy commitments.

And as Cabinet Secretary, first under Cameron and then under May, Heywood increasingly finds himself working in detail on individual projects and policy areas that span Whitehall. Sometimes this is at the Prime Minister’s instigation, as when Heywood is asked to chair a committee on extremism in schools, review the costs of HS2, or negotiate with energy companies over household bills. At other times this is something which Heywood takes on himself. In one example, he decides to conduct his own review of social care, using a team he draws from the Cabinet Office, in the hope of persuading the Treasury to increase funding. In more operational cases, he surprises colleagues by the extent to which he is willing to get ‘down in the weeds’ of individual projects.

Heywood’s strengths as an administrator are plain to see. Effectively, he works as a kind of social innovator, disrupting inherited organisational relationships and patterns of thought, linking people together to help them collectively solve their own problems. But while his successes in ranging across policy areas reflect well on him, they reflect less well on Whitehall as a whole; one might ask why the permanent secretaries at the MoD or DfT were incapable of rationalising the design of new carriers or getting a grip of the costs of HS2. More to the point, what systematic changes could be introduced to improve the quality of public administration throughout these departments? Then there are questions about the role of the civil service in relation to cabinet government. Is the first priority of the Cabinet Secretary to serve the Prime Minister, or the Cabinet?

Heywood does take important steps to improve the quality of public administration generally—creating a master’s programme at the LSE for high-potential civil servants, establishing a quarterly civil service journal to share good practice, and actively promoting diversity in civil service recruitment. All the same, there is a personalistic quality to his contributions, the work of an heroic individual, papering over the cracks in the system through a prodigious appetite for work. Not only is this not systematizable, there is a risk such an approach, for all its short-term successes, may contribute to the dysfunctionalities it is seeking to address.

Heywood’s rise to the top of the civil service is itself a reflection of both systemic and personal strengths and weaknesses. His effectiveness as a problem solver is such that successive prime ministers become dependent on him. Repeatedly he is retained at Number 10 when ordinarily he should have moved onto another assignment. Remarkably, he becomes the country’s top civil servant without ever having run a department. His role never really changes, even as he is promoted—first from Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister to Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister (a role created for him), then later to Cabinet Secretary. Even as Cabinet Secretary he has the administrative running of the civil service hived off, and given to the Communities and Local Government permanent secretary, Bob Kerslake. He remains essentially the PPS to the PM throughout, but with his sphere of influence enlarged. This suits his personality, as someone who combined being the smartest guy in the room with hating the attention that comes with ‘being the front man’. A conspicuously good servant to and interpreter of the wishes of prime ministers, he takes the authority that comes with having the PM’s ear and runs with it. He is the courtier-cum-fixer par excellence. In his very contemporary impatience with organisational structures and conventions, he is also a kind of throwback to an early modern, pre-bureaucratic approach to government. As Cabinet Secretary, the historical image that comes to mind is that of Cromwell—not Oliver, but Thomas, and not for any further parallels but purely for the open-ended scope of the latter’s role as chief minister.

Constitutional breakdown

A third main theme to emerge from this book is the role played by Heywood and the civil service with respect to constitutional crises, none bigger than Brexit. Here the weaknesses are far more evident than the strengths.

In the years before the Brexit referendum we witness a succession of smaller episodes that speak of a general taking of constitutional issues for granted. An example which exposes this (and Blair’s preference for informal, ‘sofa government’ at the same time) comes when reforms are announced which include the proposed abolition of the 1,400 year-old post of Lord Chancellor—without either consultation or awareness that this would require complex primary legislation.

To Heywood’s credit, he acts to address some of these shortcomings when he becomes aware of them—developing protocols to cover situations in which the prime minister is incapacitated, after a scare that Gordon Brown will need an operation under general anaesthetic; strengthening Whitehall’s policy engagement with devolution, following the Scottish independence referendum. Most prominently, when the rule of law is threatened, he shows that his loyalty to constitutional norms overrides his loyalty to the prime minister. Repeatedly he must stand firm against suggestions by David Cameron that the UK might break international law (over Guantanamo Bay detainees, EU labour laws, and votes for prisoners). It seems pretty clear from this what Heywood’s response would have been to the Johnson government’s proposals in autumn 2020 to break international law in ‘a specific and limited way’, in the memorable words of the Northern Ireland Secretary.

But if we are talking about constitutional issues, the main event is the referendum of 2016. The key issue here, in public administration terms, is the Prime Minister’s insistence that the civil service should not undertake any planning for a Leave vote, on the grounds that leaving the EU is not government policy. Suzanne Heywood goes out of her way to gloss this episode in a footnote: ‘Jeremy’s compliance with this request may puzzle some readers. But as he explained to me, the Civil Service works for the ministers of the crown rather than directly for the British public. It is, therefore, ministers who decide what work the Civil Service should do.’

There is a core truth here—although in Heywood’s case it would carry more weight if we had not encountered numerous instances of his acting on his own initiative, even pushing forward policies that had been ruled out by the Cabinet. As he says when reflecting on his work to advance fracking in the face of political controversy, ‘Some people believe civil servants shouldn’t have views; but if you aren’t proactive, you will achieve little.’

Leaving this to one side, this is not in any case the whole truth, in that it is the duty of civil servants to assess the feasibility of the policies that ministers want pursued. Ultimately senior civil servants may request a formal direction in cases where they fear feasibility is in doubt, the threat of which may be enough to force further consideration of the proposal in question.

More to the point, Cameron’s logic was faulty. Leaving the EU may not have been government policy; but in holding the referendum he was ceding the government’s authority to make policy directly to the people. As head of the permanent civil service, whose role it is precisely to provide continuity spanning changes in political administration, it was Heywood’s job to step in and arrange for contingency planning. This should have been his call to make.

Even more importantly, it is the Cabinet Secretary’s job to advise the Prime Minister on the risks and demands of the policies he is interested in. Heywood does write the Prime Minister a memo, back when Cameron first floats the idea of a referendum back in 2012—but this is limited in scope, mainly expressing caution that securing concessions from the EU in advance of holding a referendum may be difficult to achieve. Aside from this he provides the Prime Minister with no briefing on the ramifications of a Leave vote, on the grounds that this is a political decision—the rather Schmittian implication being that political decisions are expressions of pure sovereignty, in regard to which rational support or critique is irrelevant.

In failing to brief the Prime Minister, Heywood also fails to inform himself. On the morning after the referendum, Suzanne Heywood rings him. ‘What happens now?’ she asks. His response? ‘God knows.’ Talking as though a complete bystander to events, he goes on: ‘we need to decide how to make an exit happen, which I fear will be harder than anyone has appreciated.’

That evening Suzanne Heywood comes home to find Jeremy deep in thought.

‘We have a massive amount to do. For a start, we need to get ready to negotiate agreements with every trading bloc in the world. And the pound has plummeted, so we need to find a way to reassure the markets. But do you know what the most difficult issue is?’

‘What?’

‘Ireland.’

‘Really?’

‘Absolutely. If Northern Ireland is out of the EU and Southern Ireland is in, then we’ll need a hard border between them. But that would demolish the Good Friday Agreement. I don’t yet see how we will solve that.’

Perhaps the worst thing about this scene is that it isn’t the first time something like this had happened—or nearly happened. Only two years earlier, as the Scottish independence referendum draws near, we get another alarmed exchange between Heywood and his wife. Again, the Cabinet Secretary speaks like a complete bystander.

‘The Yes campaign couldn’t win, could they?’ I asked Jeremy.

‘They could,’ he said. ‘We may be about to see the disintegration of the United Kingdom. […] God knows how the government has got itself into this position.’

On this earlier occasion Cameron had also forbade the civil service from planning for a Yes vote. Heywood again acceded. Together they get away with it on this occasion, but one can just imagine the scene between Heywood and his wife the day after a successful vote for Scottish independence. What profound questions would the civil service discover it had neglected to ask? Never mind what currency Scotland would have, or what to do with the nuclear subs at Faslane, how about this one for starters: Had anyone in the British Government even thought for a moment what would be the official name of their country, once Great Britain ceased to be a political entity?

No Sir Humphrey

The epilogue to Suzanne Heywood’s book features the addresses given at Heywood’s memorial service by the four prime ministers he served directly. In paying heartfelt tributes to his talent and integrity, a repeated theme is that he ‘was not a “yes Minister” man’, ‘he was no Sir Humphrey’, he ‘was the very best of Sir Humphrey, with none of the downsides’.

It’s a testament to the resonance in British culture of Yes, Minister, the Eighties sitcom written by Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, that the character of Sir Humphrey Appleby has become shorthand for the senior civil servant, even among the politicians who work with them. As mental shorthand, the image it conjures up is unmistakeably negative: the civil servant as self-serving bureaucrat, whose chief concern is to frustrate the will of elected politicians. It is an image that unites in excited ire politicians of both left and right.

In praising his memory these prime ministers are quick to distance Heywood from that image of Sir Humphrey; this is the substance of their praise. Where Sir Humphrey applied his ingenuity in blocking his minister’s proposals, Jeremy applied his in finding a way to make them happen. 

In this, Heywood is the civil servant of his time—a time which, contrasting  the dynamism of markets and the stasis of bureaucracy, values informality over structure, achieving results over the development of advice. There is plenty to be said for this shift in emphasis; but perhaps we are now at a stage, culturally, when we may recognise the virtues in Sir Humphrey, once stripped of his caricature cynicism. Providing robust, evidence-based advice that challenges the ideas of politicians is too often seen as interfering with the legitimate will of the people. It could instead be valued as a function of a pluralist system that ensures government is well-informed and exercised in the public interest.

How would Sir Humphrey have handled the Prime Minister’s idea for an in/out referendum on Europe? I think we know: he would have insisted on a thorough analysis of the issues before proceeding further, and made sure of drawing out all the risks. This would not have contradicted the will of ministers or their electoral mandate, but would certainly have informed it: exactly the appropriate course of action from a good government perspective.

What we witness over Heywood’s era is the simultaneous erosion of cabinet government and promotion of a can-do ethos within the civil service, now viewing its central virtue as responsiveness. Who is there left, on almost any occasion, to say ‘No, Prime Minister’?

Richard McNeill Douglas is an associate fellow at the Political Economy Research Centre, Goldsmiths, University of London and a contributing editor for Renewal