Jeremy Heywood has never been a household name in Britain. But over the last 30 years, few figures inside the UK government have been more powerful or so often at the centre of great events.
As he stood down as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service on Wednesday after six years in the role, Sir Jeremy pointed in a valedictory statement to some of the major political and economic dramas at which he has been present.
On Black Wednesday in 1992, he was private secretary to the Conservative chancellor Norman Lamont, helping to put in place the UK’s new monetary framework after the ERM crisis.
During the 2008 financial crisis, he was head of domestic policy and strategy in Downing Street, working for Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and trying as he put it to prevent Britain “falling into another great depression”.
But the biggest crisis Sir Jeremy has had to contend with is the most recent one: Brexit. He said: “I am particularly proud of the work Whitehall has done in seeking to bring clarity, shape and practical options [on Brexit] to the table for ministers to discuss.”
Brexit has clouded the end of his tenure as cabinet secretary, with politicians — notably Eurosceptic Conservative MPs — attacking civil servants over their work on prime minister Theresa May’s compromise plan for leaving the EU.
Sir Jeremy, 56, is a northerner who has never completely lost the trace of his regional accent in spite of three decades in the cloistered world of Whitehall. But apart from his urbanity, the quality which many civil servants associate with Sir Jeremy is his agility in working with four very different prime ministers.
Before Mr Brown, he worked for Labour prime minister Tony Blair as private secretary. Then, as cabinet secretary, he served Tory prime ministers David Cameron and Theresa May.
“Each of those prime ministers, two from Labour, two from the Conservatives, regarded him as ‘Mr Indispensable’,” said one Whitehall mandarin.
Part of Sir Jeremy’s reputation serving these four prime ministers came from defusing political feuds.
When Mr Blair was premier, he helped resolve often thunderous conflicts with his chancellor Mr Brown.
“For many of those years he was the guy from the Number 10 end who kept the Brown-Blair relationship going,” said one Whitehall insider.
After the 2010 election, he also played a crucial role in helping to ensure that the uneasy Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition functioned.
“He saw his job as serving whoever was in power and his job at the time was to make the coalition work,” said one official.
That reputation meant that when Gus O’Donnell stood down as cabinet secretary in 2012, Sir Jeremy was the shoo-in replacement.
“There was no competition because Cameron saw him as the obvious choice,” said Jill Rutter, programme director at the Institute for Government, a think-tank.
Sir Jeremy made clear on Wednesday that he saw his trademark as a civil servant as being a problem solver.
“Throughout my career, I have seen it as my responsibility to . . . find solutions,” he said.
One official said this was the critical characteristic of Sir Jeremy to understand. “An earlier generation of cabinet secretaries would have said to the PM: ‘Here are the options’. Jeremy’s approach was to say: ‘Here’s the solution’,” he added.
Brexit, however, was a problem too far. His response after Leave’s victory in the EU referendum in June 2016 was the civil service had to make the best of Brexit.
But Sir Jeremy was hampered by the fact he had done little contingency planning for Brexit before the poll — almost certainly because Mr Cameron refused to instruct the civil service to conduct any.
Problems then intensified. Sir Jeremy was last year vilified by Eurosceptic Conservative MPs because he was deemed to be the author of a complex solution to the Brexit customs conundrum.
His absence since June through illness made it difficult for him to defend his protégé Olly Robbins, Mrs May’s main Brexit negotiator, who has been attacked by Eurosceptic Tories.
The gap Sir Jeremy leaves is huge. Ms Rutter said: “It’s hard to see how any successor could be a cabinet secretary of the kind Jeremy has been, with that monumental detailed grasp across the whole of domestic policy.”
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