TThe shaping and reshaping of the modern British state, told through the eyes, words and private thoughts of the ruler’s closest and most trusted adviser. Dialogue-driven scenes, from formal committee or cabinet meetings to one-on-one, planned or random, peppered with internal monologues. The rise of the protagonist, from a relatively ordinary environment, to the heights of power, through a combination of intellectual capacity, keen political instincts and above all his understanding of what motivates others. And finally his untimely death, while he was still at the peak of his abilities; in the eyes of the author, at least, a tragedy for his country …
Suzanne Heywood’s account of the life of her late husband Jeremy, cabinet secretary and confidante to four prime ministers, does not match Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell in length or imagination. But I don’t make the comparison of Lords Heywood and Cromwell lightly. The two men not only held similar positions, but in many respects shared a governance approach, mixing the personal and the political, their analytical intelligence with their understanding of human nature. Therefore, this book should be read in a spirit similar to that of Mantel’s masterpieces, such as the portrait of an exceptional man who was always at the center of events.
This is at least half of a memoir, as it is based on Heywood’s own memories, notes, and conversations with his wife, as well as his extensive interviews with former colleagues and political teachers. But there are few revelations about recent events (the global financial crisis, Brexit) and few lewd gossip about politicians. The most dramatic moment is the staff, when Heywood threatens to resign after “Theresa May narrowed her eyes and accused him of conspiring with the French.” If you’re looking for sex or scandals in Westminster and Whitehall, you’d be better off with Sasha Swire’s Diary of a Deputy’s Wife.
Where the book succeeds is in conveying the atmosphere of life at the center of a succession of crises. Whether it was coordinating Gordon Brown’s nationalization of much of the UK banking system, or watching and replaying security camera footage to establish whether Andrew Mitchell said the word ‘commoner’, Heywood devoted himself entirely to his job. In that respect What does Jeremy think? It will be invaluable as a resource for academics and historians both as to how, when, why and by whom certain decisions were made, and how the decision-making process within government looks up close.
Suzanne is faithful to her husband’s generous spirit and habit of looking at people in the best light. David Cameron reportedly tried to block the publication of this book, but it’s hard to see how he thought it would further damage his tarnished reputation. For example, the fact that he, and not Heywood, made the irresponsible and selfish decision to stop the civil service preparing for a license victory in the Brexit referendum is already well known. In general, the politicians here, from all parties, are honest and well-intentioned, and it’s a welcome contrast to the cynicism and contempt with which they are generally portrayed in the media.
But sometimes this takes the edge off. David Davis’ work ethic and approach to Brexit negotiations are described as “less exhaustive” than Theresa May’s. On the contrary, Dominic Cummings calls it “thick as a hash and lazy as a toad.” There is no necessary contradiction here, but Cummings’ words are far more revealing and useful for those who want to understand the Brexit process. And Suzanne’s approach sometimes results in retouching Heywood’s opinions and scathing wit. He knew him well, and while he rarely, if ever, criticized ministers, even his friends, it is safe to say that his views on the competence and character of some of May and Cameron’s political advisers were considerably more scathing. of what is implied here. .
Suzanne’s real challenge here is to convey to those who did not know him what made Heywood so unusual, among other things, his empathy, both personal and political. On a personal level, she made him charming and engaging, both when listening and speaking. And when it comes to politics, it gave him an unmatched ability to convince people that they should do what he wanted them to do.
Together, these gifts allowed him to bridge the gaps between Blair and Brown at their most antagonistic moments, and to bridge seemingly impossible compromises between Whitehall that left everyone thinking they had “won.” It is perhaps best captured by Ken Clarke’s note to Heywood that says, “I don’t know if you and I are in complete agreement; if it has stated my views more clearly than I could do it myself; or if you have subtly influenced my views so that they have changed without my noticing and now coincide with yours. “
For me, the most difficult question posed by Jeremy’s life and career is his legacy. It’s hard to argue that recent years, and in particular the handling of both Brexit and the Covid pandemic, reflect well on the British civil service and the British state. While politicians must bear much of the blame, Heywood himself would not have excused the failures of the Home Office for Windrush, England Public Health for testing and tracing, or the Department of Education for testing.
As the title of the book indicates, it is almost impossible for those of us who knew him not to ask ourselves what Jeremy would think, and what he would do, in our current overlapping crises, and by implication conclude that if he was still with us, things would not have been. happened. come to this step. Perhaps so, but that is of little help. And I can’t help but think that while a leader’s test is how he performs in a crisis, a test that Heywood never failed, another equally important is how the organization and the people he led perform in the first crisis after his departure. In that sense, history may be less kind. I hope to be wrong.
The unusual nature of What does Jeremy think? it means that the author is herself a central character, although whose own qualities are only glimpsed. Suzanne Heywood, formerly a cook, grew up and nearly died in a small boat, while her father re-created the voyages of his illustrious namesake. Effectively abandoned in rural New Zealand, she determinedly crawled into Cambridge and then her own remarkable career in business. She will tell her own story in a different book.
• What does Jeremy think? Jeremy Heywood and the creation of modern Britain It is published by William Collins (RRP £ 25). To order a copy to go guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism