Proverbial wisdom insists that no one gets to their final hours wishing they had spent more time in the office. By the account of Suzanne Heywood, however, her husband, Jeremy, would have politely begged to differ. As she writes in her memoir of his extraordinary career, the man who “ran Britain” – and who helped save it once or twice from catastrophe – was still sending emails, making calls right up to the last days of a life cut tragically short at 56. When his inoperable lung cancer spread to his liver, Suzanne half-suggested they took their remaining time together off to go travelling. She knew him much better than to imagine he would say yes.
Instead, they spent a good deal of those precious last months documenting Heywood’s 30 years at the heart of government – in the period roughly from Yes Minister to The Thick of It. As a young Treasury prodigy Jeremy Heywood had helped steer the Major government through Black Wednesday and the ERM crisis; as the wisest of old heads he had tried to help Theresa May firefight her way to Brexit. In between times he had been private secretary to Tony Blair; head of domestic policy for Gordon Brown, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service for David Cameron. Suzanne Heywood calls her book What Does Jeremy Think?, a phrase that was never far from the lips of anyone in government in all of that time.
The book is, in some ways, an alternative volume to that other political wife’s tale published last year: Sasha Swire’s breathless diary of the Cameron years. If Swire’s memoirs gave an insight into politics as we might imagine it to be – jealousies and egos and insider intimacies – Heywood’s gives an insight into the business of government from underneath the bonnet in Whitehall: mainly, one never-ending crisis meeting punctuated by elections and action plans and infrequent breaks for lunch. Over 30 years Heywood incrementally made himself the master of this realm, the vital link between political promises and pragmatism, understanding exactly what could be done and how best to do it, and holding much of that knowledge in his head.
In June 2019, seven months after his death, in the most remarkable British memorial service of modern times, Suzanne Heywood lined up four prime ministers (plus Nick Clegg) to give heartfelt eulogies to her husband, who became Lord Heywood of Whitehall in his hospital bed. Tony Blair set the ball rolling by saying “when he was with me, I depended on him, and when he was gone, I felt the absence like an ache”. Gordon Brown recalled how, on leaving office, he left David Cameron a handwritten note, which read “the country is in good hands: Jeremy is running it”. Cameron agreed that when “faced with an intractable problem, or an unresolvable conflict, or even an impossible colleague – there was no one you would rather have had working by your side”. Theresa May rounded the tributes off by saying “surely the legend of our brilliant civil service should be no longer the fictional Sir Humphrey but the true story of Sir Jeremy. The greatest public servant of our time.”
Despite all this oratory, however, it was the Heywoods’ eldest son, Jonny, now at Cambridge, who came up with the most memorable line of the service: “Some superheroes wear capes,” he said, “my dad wore a cardigan.” Suzanne Heywood’s book captures a similar kind of tone at times, presenting not only the inside story of government, but also of a unique kind of marriage, Love in the Time of the Treasury Fundamental Expenditure Review.
Appropriately, they first met in the office. She was a Fast Stream Civil Service trainee with a PhD in zoology, he already the cleverest man in any room, “striding around the Treasury with me following along in the wake of his swirling dark coat”. Each of the chapters in her book takes the title of one of the songs on the Spotify playlist that became the soundtrack of their family life, and then Jeremy’s distraction from chemotherapy. Her description of the night they first got together – when Jeremy was 32 and she 25 – after a night at a Chelsea jazz club, she calls “Light My Fire”.
You get a sense of the renowned shrewdness of Jeremy Heywood’s judgment in his attraction to her; she was, as she suggests, just what he needed. He grew up in Derbyshire. His mother was an archaeologist, his father an English teacher at the Quaker school at which he became head boy. He was a problem solver of a particular rarefied sort, one who, for example, never learned to drive and had little interest in practical tasks of any kind.
Suzanne was, he discovered, in that latter respect at least, something like his opposite. On that first “light my fire” night, when they returned to her flat from the jazz club she told him the story of her own extraordinary childhood – a briefer version of which she outlined to me when we spoke last week. In 1976, when she was seven and her brother was four, Suzanne’s parents decided that the family would recreate the third voyage of Captain Cook in a 70-foot sailing boat. This on the basis that they shared a surname with the explorer, and it was the bicentenary of that voyage. Her journey eventually lasted nine years. “We’d set off sailing towards Fiji and my dad would suddenly decide the wind was going in the wrong direction and go to Samoa,” she recalls. “And on a boat, you’ve got no personal space. And it is hard to read or study because everything on the boat is up and down and back to front.”
About a year after they set sail they were shipwrecked in a force 11 gale in the Indian Ocean. Suzanne’s father, Gordon Cook, was thrown overboard, saved by a lifeline, and navigated the broken ship, patched up with bits of carpet, to the only island, Ile Amsterdam, in the 2,000 miles between them and Australia. Suzanne had cracked her skull when the boat capsized and was saved by an operation to remove a blood clot on her brain performed by the island’s only doctor, about which she still has nightmares.
Far from being put off their travels, her parents carried on. When Suzanne was 16, she’d long since had enough. Her parents left her in sole charge of her brother in New Zealand, and sailed on for a further seven years. Though she had never been to school she subsequently wrote to every university listed in the Times Educational Supplement asking for an interview. Oxford replied and she was interviewed by Professor Marian Dawkins, ex-wife of Richard, and given a place at Somerville College. After completing her doctorate at Cambridge and some years in the civil service she became a senior partner at the management consultants McKinsey.
Not much of that story finds its way into the current book (she has been at work on another memoir about the family voyage), but it does begin to explain her capacity for coping – with Jeremy’s illness and her subsequent grief, with their three children, with her all-consuming jobs – that underpins it.
“There are all sorts of downsides to my sort of childhood,” she tells me. “I wouldn’t necessarily wish it on anyone. I think it’s really tough to be in a situation where you can’t get real access to education. But the big upside of it is, I think, you do come out of it feeling very resilient and capable of handling most things.”
There is a funny section of the book where she finds herself up on the roof of their south London home, helping a builder make repairs. In their marriage of opposites, I wonder, did it not sometimes infuriate her that her husband was able to run the country but not share the driving?
“He did eventually get a driving licence,” she says, laughing. “But I only ever once managed to convince him to drive. And it was quite hair-raising. It took us several hours to recover from the experience. So never again.”
The more you read about her husband’s contradictions in the book – quiet, but highly sociable, charming, but sometimes ruthless – the more you are intrigued by his motivation. How did she understand it?
“It wasn’t ego,” she says. “What got him excited was finding a way through something. He used to get ideas from everywhere; you’d go to a dinner party, and afterwards he would quiz me on any good ideas I had found from anybody. And he would have three people to email something to, and others to connect with somebody else. He was very driven by intellectual curiosity, and always moving forward.”
She interviewed lots of his civil service colleagues for the book. Several said they were scared of him “not because he was going to be aggressive or put you down, but because they wanted him to think that they’d done a good job”. As she remembers from her own time working for him, he had a phenomenal ability to spot the weakness in any idea: “If you gave him a paper he would say ‘I don’t understand this, on page seven’ and of course that was always the bit that you didn’t understand either.”
He tended to be less forensic about emotional issues. Some of the political crises in the book are shadowed by private traumas, in particular their difficulties in having children, miscarriages and rounds of fertility treatment. “In the matter of IVF,” Suzanne says, “Jeremy was as hands-off as possible.”
It was the same when it came to his illness. It was left to Suzanne to inform their children that he probably wasn’t going to get better, and he was reluctant to share details with colleagues in government for fear that he would be relieved of his duties at a crucial time. When it came to the cancer itself, his chosen strategy was “just tell me the bare bones of the treatment and show me where I have to be when, but let’s not talk about it”, Suzanne says. In that sense, working together on the book, Suzanne asking questions and making notes, was a way of thinking about something else.
“It meant that we had a shared project, a positive shared project,” she says. “It gave us something future-oriented.”
Part of this was a sense from Heywood that he needed to pass on what he knew of government, as an act of institutional memory. The civil service had long been unloved by the rightwing media and misunderstood by the public, but, in the last months of his life, these feelings were stoked more than ever. After a series of attacks in the Daily Mail on his perceived role as a so-called “closet Remainer” frustrating the “will of the people”, and in between her husband’s scans and biopsies, Suzanne Heywood was sent a bullet in the post at home with a note reading: “Remind your fucking husband how the country voted.”
His main motivation to continue working after his diagnosis, she says, was that he was “very conscious of the need to try to put in place a legacy in the civil service, which would leave it strong enough to deal with what was to come”.
That strength, he knew, lay in the independence of its advice and its willingness to serve any government, a code he embodied. He always voted, but even his wife professes not to know for which party. “I try my best to stay invisible,” he said on his first, belated appearance before a select committee in 2012. His one absence from Downing Street began in 2003 when he resigned to take up a job with the American bank Morgan Stanley. The reasons for this are not fully explained, beyond a need for different challenges. (Some observers have suggested a link between Heywood’s departure and the fallout from the duplicitous invasion of Iraq, decision-making from which – by the evidence of the Chilcot inquiry – he seemed conspicuously absent. Suzanne Heywood does not suggest any such connection.)
When Gordon Brown became prime minister, one of his first priorities, an aide confided, was “to get Jeremy back from the City”. The timing was immaculate. Heywood not only left banking before the financial crash, he was on hand to help Brown formulate his plan to “save the world’s economy” when it happened; events that cemented Heywood’s reputation as the consummate fixer (he once described his job as “helping the prime minister to think”). “Jeremy did not need crises,” Brown remarked in his eulogy, “but crises needed Jeremy.”
His ways of orchestrating such government responses had by then clearly become second nature. When Suzanne talked to the ministers and prime ministers who had witnessed these sleights of hand, they would often not see how they had been done. “Often in a meeting, people would tell me when I interviewed them, he was the person who actually wouldn’t say anything. He would wait till people said things and then he would just steer the conversation a little.”
He was in this sense the perfect operator in the coalition government, not only smoothing relationships in cabinet, but also seeing off the maverick extremes in the Tory party. One of the more telling relationships that the book describes is that between Heywood and Steve Hilton, Cameron’s libertarian T-shirted guru, who has now reinvented himself as a cheerleader for Donald Trump on Fox TV. Hilton favoured radical culling of the civil service, even at one point entertaining the “Somerset House option”, cutting back the 430,000 civil servants to a mythical 4,000 who could once again fit into their original 18th-century home on the Strand. Heywood gave Hilton all possible freedom to present these ideas, exposing them to the embarrassing glare of reality, not long before Hilton quietly departed for California.
Reading such passages, and the chapters in which Heywood’s increasing absence from Downing Street coincides with the chaos of Theresa May’s failed Chequers plan for Brexit, you wonder whether history might have been slightly different had Heywood stayed well. As May herself said to Suzanne: “I think people will look back and notice when he stopped.”
Could Heywood have worked with Boris Johnson – who has presided over an unprecedented purge of permanent secretaries, six civil service department heads including Heywood’s successor, Sir Mark Sedwill, leaving in response to Dominic Cummings’s grandstanding “hard rain” policies? Suzanne believes that he could – could have found compromises.
But that’s how she remembers him, never seeing problems, only opportunities, right up to the end. Writing the book has been a good way of reminding herself of that. “I basically was in the hospital with him for that last period and you go through some very horrible things – a lot of which I haven’t put it in the book – that can really distort your memory. All the medical stuff. But the book allows you to see that is only the last chapter, not the whole story.” To borrow from his Spotify list, alongside Everybody Hurts there was also plenty of Viva la Vida.
And what would her husband have made of all this, of the memorial speeches, the book fanfare, the interviews?
“I think he would have been flattered and hideously embarrassed,” she says. “And immensely relieved that he wasn’t there, because I mean, being the story himself, that would have been his worst nightmare.”