June 7, 2013 2:07 pm

Jeremy Heywood: the other power in Downing Street

The cabinet secretary is the single most influential figure in David Cameron’s Number 10
Illustration by Luis Grañena of Jeremy Heywood and David Cameron©Luis Grañena
Illustration by Luis Grañena of Jeremy Heywood and David Cameron©Luis Grañena

When Jeremy Heywood was a young civil servant, in the foothills of the climb that would take him to the top of the British establishment, he was a notoriously unreconstructed smoker. One day, a Treasury colleague bet him a good dinner that he could not give up for a month, telling him, “I don’t think you can do it.” It was the last cigarette Heywood ever smoked.

An iron will has helped to make Heywood, knighted in 2012, the most influential single figure in David Cameron’s Number 10. Yet the tourists who congregate at the gates to Downing Street, angling for a glimpse of the men and women running the country, would scarcely spare a glance for the tall, greying 51-year-old with the wire-rimmed glasses.

They would be making a mistake. For more than 20 years Heywood has stood at the centre of public life: at Norman Lamont’s right hand as the pound tumbled out of the exchange rate mechanism; at Tony Blair’s as he hurried to put his modernising stamp on Britain; and at Gordon Brown’s as he led the bailout of the global banking system.

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To some he is the supreme achievement of the nation’s unpoliticised civil service: a man who has served two chancellors, three prime ministers and a deputy prime minister, between them representing all three major parties. But to others he is a sinister éminence grise, willing to sacrifice a radical Conservative agenda on the altar of “continuity”.

Judgments are clouded by the Tories’ growing anxiety about David Cameron’s capacity to win outright at the next election; and by the Lib Dems’ concern that the legacy of their time in government will be electoral annihilation. But through a series of interviews with his supporters and his critics, a picture emerges of a man who believes passionately that “the civil service must be in the room” when big decisions are taken and whose closeness to the prime minister has rendered him one of the most powerful holders of his office in modern times.

Nick Butler, special adviser to Gordon Brown when Heywood was his permanent secretary, describes him as “a Richelieu, a Coville” – a man gripped by the possibilities of power but with no wish to exercise it on his own account: a “managed ego” who, amid a gathering of ministers, is content to be “the least dominant person in the room”. Operating from tennis court-sized quarters in the Cabinet Office, he spends his days chairing meetings, chasing progress and generally ensuring the will of the prime minister and deputy prime minister is done across a swath of government departments. A nearby door provides discreet internal access to Number 10.

Jeremy Heywood with David Cameron in his Downing Street office in 2011©Getty

Heywood with David Cameron in his Downing Street office in 2011

It is a punishing routine, starting with emails on his BlackBerry at home in Clapham before 7.30am and ending more than 12 hours later when he tries to get back to see his three primary school-aged children before bedtime. His wife Suzanne, a partner at McKinsey, who once reported to Heywood at the Treasury, keeps the domestic fires burning in classic “I don’t know how she does it” style. “I’m sure there’s a Microsoft project planner for who’s doing what at any given point of the week,” says a friend who recalls her travelling to Texas for a day and a half before rushing back to supervise a children’s birthday party.

The unremitting demands of the job seem to dominate life in the Heywood household. One Labour-era colleague recalls: “It always used to make me laugh that Jeremy could never stop working. Sometimes at the weekend you’d just be minding your own business and you’d find an email from Jeremy saying, ‘Oh, there was an interesting piece in the paper’ – about community sentencing or something – ‘it sounds like an interesting idea, we should look at that.’”

Jeremy Heywood with wife Suzanne in May 2012 after being knighted©Getty

With wife Suzanne in May 2012 after being knighted

Football offers an escape from civil service neutrality: Heywood is a fervent supporter of Manchester United. But TV is just about his only weeknight recreation. He loved Homeland with its portrayal of dark doings among executive agencies in the US – “They’re far more slick than we are,” he joked to a friend. But Yes Minister is anathema because of its portrayal of a fictional cabinet secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, whose mission in life is to frustrate the agenda of his ministerial masters. “Jeremy’s not trying to thwart them, he’s trying to help them,” one ally said.

The son of a schoolmaster, Heywood attended Bootham, a private Quaker school in York where his father taught English and drama. His accent still bears traces of a northern upbringing, while his straightforward manner lacks the calculated urbanity of mandarin caricature. He read history and economics at Hertford College, Oxford, later taking a masters at the London School of Economics. In between he joined the elite ranks of the fast-stream civil service – but in the decidedly sluggish backwater of the Health and Safety Executive.

His break came when he was recruited to the Treasury, the department which any young man with Heywood’s sharp brain, and acute sense of where power truly lay, aspired to join.

Jonathan Portes, now head of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, who developed a lasting friendship with him at that time, remembers a prodigious party-giver and natural leader whose ability to catalyse social events for his circle of bright twenty­something friends recalled Sebastian Flyte from Brideshead Revisited. It is a surprisingly sybaritic image for a man who worked considerably harder than he played, catching the eye of Norman Lamont, then financial secretary to the Treasury. Lamont chose him to be his private secretary, impressed by “his calmness, his intelligence, his creativity ... He was the best sort of British civil servant.”

Norman Lamont©Getty

1986-1993 Private secretary to Norman Lamont

He rose with Lord Lamont, whose elevation to the chancellorship meant that, aged 30, Heywood was the closest civil service aide to one of the most powerful men in the government. This ability to exceed the Whitehall speed limit worried older civil service heads. Lord Lamont recalls: “The Treasury didn’t want him to be my private secretary. [The] objection to him was simply that he was too young.”

Behind his precociously rapid progress lay a rare ability to grasp the political context within which ministers had to operate. Lord O’Donnell, his predecessor as cabinet secretary and a mentor to the young Heywood, said: “The thing, I suppose, that marked him out was not only getting the technical stuff, but also understanding the politics very well. We are all in the business of political economy and I think he got that very early.”

Others noticed another quality vital for success in Whitehall: an ability to cast those he served in an impressive light. Jill Rutter, who was private secretary to John Major, then chief Treasury secretary, recalls receiving “these absolutely brilliant minutes coming from the financial secretary on tax issues”, penned, she learnt, by his then 26-year-old private secretary, a certain J. Heywood.

“We would read them and [Major] would say, ‘Should we have a word with Norman Lamont to understand this?’ And we would end up realising we really needed to speak to Jeremy. He was always very good at making ministers look good.”

Sometimes this single-minded focus on serving his political masters has made him enemies. One person who worked with him in the Treasury in the 1990s described how he sidelined Rachel Lomax, who was then head of the City regulation desk, and went on to be deputy governor at the Bank of England. “Rachel wanted a meeting on City regulation, but Jeremy kept delaying it,” the person explains. “Month after month would go by until Rachel, one of the most important people in the Treasury, began to complain she hadn’t seen the chancellor in around a year. He was always very good at playing office politics.”

Those who have laboured alongside him in the Whitehall salt mines can only guess at his personal politics. One former colleague says: “If one had to stick one’s neck out, I’d say he was a wet Tory … but he’s very dry in some other areas. And he’s got a big concern for social inequality and stuff like that. So I find it hard to place him.”

. . .

All attest to Heywood’s voracious appetite for the detail of policy and his skill at managing the Whitehall machine. But it is his closeness to the prime minister that really marks him out. Lord [Peter] Hennessy, Attlee professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary, University of London and a veteran observer of Whitehall, believes that not since the era of Burke Trend, cabinet secretary for a decade from 1963, has a holder of the office wielded such influence.

John Major©Getty

1991-1997 Served successive chancellors under John Major

Part of this is personal, part structural. First the personal. Heywood and Cameron have known each other since the days before Black Wednesday when the future prime minister was Lord Lamont’s special adviser. When Lord O’Donnell elected to retire at the end of 2011, Heywood, the most distinguished official of his generation, was the obvious and only choice to replace him.

But, having never run a Whitehall department, Heywood believed he lacked the administrative experience to take on the other key part of the job: running the civil service. Cameron, on the other hand, did not “want to lose Jeremy”, an insider says. The cabinet secretary’s allies insist his own preferences did not come in to it; they say the workload generated not only by the demands of coalition but the most radical programme of policy reform for decades forced the decision to appoint a separate head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake.

Whatever the reason, the role of cabinet secretary has been shorn of many of its managerial and ambassadorial aspects and recreated as that of the closest adviser to the prime minister – and deputy prime minister – in a fashion unparalleled since before the era of “sofa government” when political advisers were in the ascendant and even senior civil servants were relegated to the margins.

Two other changes, driven by the particular nature of coalition government, have combined to amplify Heywood’s role. The first is that a greater volume of business is transacted through cabinet committees than under the recent Labour administrations, reflecting the need for a forum in which the views of Conservative and Lib Dem ministers can be reconciled. These committees are administered and advised by Heywood.

Tony Blair©Getty

1997-2003 Private secretary to Tony Blair

The second, and more momentous, decision was that, rather than appointing two separate units of political advisers – one for Cameron and one for his coalition partner, Nick Clegg – a single strategy unit for Number 10 should be established, staffed only by civil servants. This experiment came to an abrupt end in April when Cameron bowed to pressure from an increasingly restive rightwing by appointing a politician, Jo Johnson – brother of London mayor Boris Johnson – to head a strategy unit in charge of developing a Conservative agenda for the general election.

But a belief among some Conservative MPs that Heywood had enthusiastically backed the “civil service only” model to bolster his own authority has done more than anything else to fuel a visceral dislike among rightwingers, already chafing under the constraints of coalition. They blame him for turning Number 10 into what one calls “a politics-free zone”.

The departure last year of policy guru Steve Hilton, the only Number 10 figure to rival Heywood in closeness to the prime minister and ability to range across all subject areas, deepened concerns that technocratic efficiency, Whitehall-style, had prevailed over the development of a more distinctive governing ideology.

Critics cite an ill-fated attempt to impose a minimum price for alcohol. The prime minister, persuaded of the public health arguments, was determined to introduce it despite the opposition of several Cabinet ministers. Heywood came up with the solution: deliver the reform in a Budget, bypassing the need for Cabinet agreement. The prime minister got his way but tellingly the policy was in effect consigned to legislative oblivion when it failed to feature in this year’s Queen’s Speech.

. . .

People who worked closely with Heywood in the Labour era recall a loyal and collegiate character, as enthusiastic about implementing policies with which he had disagreed as those he had supported. But, if he was unhappy with the direction in which an internal debate was moving, he would not hesitate to reopen it. “If the decision wasn’t public and he was worried it was the wrong thing, he would be persistent coming back to it,” says a former colleague.

Gordon Brown©Getty

2008-2010 Chief of staff to Gordon Brown

Some felt stirrings of anxiety about his influence. A Downing Street contemporary says: “I’d always have a worry that sometimes, because Jeremy spent longer than most of us with the prime minister, [he] would get the prime minister interested again in something we’d kicked into touch … there were things which seemed to crop up again which you thought you’d killed.”

The contemporary stresses that Heywood was not pursuing a separate agenda. While he had his “obsessions” – one was road-pricing – they were always within “the general intellectual space” that had been set out by the government.

Jonathan Portes says: “He thinks his job is to help the government and the minister – or prime minister – achieve their objectives, which obviously does not mean blindly doing everything that you’re told, otherwise what’s the point?

“It [means] giving them well-informed, high-quality, objective advice, trying to help them shape their thoughts and come to a view and then helping them navigate a way to achieving that objective. He was there for Norman Lamont. He did it for Tony Blair. He did it for Gordon [Brown] and he’s doing it for Cameron. And if there was some political earthquake tomorrow, and somebody else came in, then he would do it for them.”

Some, however, complain that at times he has crossed the line from stern interrogator to active critic. Insiders say he has been vocal in warning of the perils of over-hasty implementation of universal credit, the government’s flagship welfare reform. At the height of the furore over the NHS reforms he was heard to describe as “madness” a plan – subsequently modified – to give doctors unfettered control of their own budgets. Another recalls a tense meeting in which Heywood repeatedly pressed then health secretary Andrew Lansley on the detail of his plans, leaving observers in no doubt that he considered himself very much the secretary of state’s equal.

The past few months have seen a number of blemishes on the previously spotless Heywood escutcheon that have cast a question mark over his judgment and, some believe, subtly reduced his potency. The most significant concerned an inquiry he led into the bizarre incident in which Andrew Mitchell, then chief whip, was accused of swearing at Downing Street police officers. Heywood was later forced to admit he had not pursued ­“unanswered questions” about the affair, which led to Mitchell’s resignation.

For many Conservative backbenchers, the decision to revert to the more traditional model of a politically led strategy unit represents nothing less than the triumphal reassertion of Westminster’s supremacy over Whitehall. Others, however, believe Heywood will wield his influence, just as he has always done, adapting to the changed circumstances.

Nick Pearce, who headed Gordon Brown’s policy unit when Heywood was chief of staff and now runs the Institute for Public Policy Research, says: “He will always be powerful in any Number 10. He is highly intelligent and he works like a dog. He will get on well with Jo Johnson and I don’t think he will be a diminished figure. I have never yet seen anybody crowd him out.”

Heywood, who lacks the impervious hide of the professional politician, will need every ounce of resilience he can muster in the months to come. As the general election approaches, the task of managing collective Cabinet responsibility will become ever more testing as the two parties seek to differentiate themselves in the eyes of voters.

Lord Hennessy believes that, given the closeness between Heywood and Cameron, history may accord them a joint verdict. “The cabinet secretary and the premiership shape each other,” he says. If this is true, Heywood’s fate may intersect powerfully with that of an administration that began with such promise in the sun-dappled Rose Garden at Number 10 but now seems likely to be remembered for its missteps and lack of strategic acumen.

In the shadows, Heywood recently told friends, is where he wants to be. But those who know him best say he will never move too far from the source of power. As one former colleague puts it: “Jeremy likes to get things done. He’s frustrated by inefficiency and stupidness. And you can change things if you are close to the prime minister and you can’t if you’re not, basically. I think in his own way he wants to make the world a better place.”

Sarah Neville is the FT’s public policy editor and Kiran Stacey is an FT political correspondent.

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