What Does Jeremy Think?

What Does Jeremy Think?

Anyone who is interested in politics, policy and the inner workings of government in the UK should read What Does Jeremy Think?: Jeremy Heywood and the Making of Modern Britain by his wife Suzanne Heywood, a biography of the most influential civil servant the country has probably ever seen. It is too soon to know how Heywood’s reputation may be judged in light of his involvement in the Greensill scandal and this book also clearly and very openly has a particular perspective, but it is nevertheless a fascinating read.

Jeremy Heywood was a figure I had been aware of since I started working in research and policy for government in 2001 and I was very interested to hear him when he came to speak at an Institute for Government event when I was working there in 2015, on one of the rare occasions he was the subject and his role as Cabinet Secretary was the focus. I was therefore shocked and sad to hear of his illness and then of his death back in 2018, which came at a time when the country had perhaps never needed him more. This book was a fantastic way for his wife Suzanne to capture the role that Jeremy played in shaping modern Britain, through in-depth conversations with him when he was ill.

I found the early chapters really interesting, recounting events I was aware of before going to University, but did not know much about. Jeremy’s story takes us through Black Wednesday when he was working for Norman Lamont, the then Chancellor, and when the collapse in the value of sterling forced Britain to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism. This starts one of the themes that runs through the book, of Britain’s relationship with Europe and of various Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for being part of Europe, whilst the country became more Eurosceptic in the face of various governments’ policy decisions and of the press’ reactions to them.

It is funny on reading about the transition to Labour in 1997 to think that Heywood was worried he would seem too close to the Conservatives, long before a number of Prime Ministers of different political colours saw him as central to achieving their agendas. Until reading the book, I hadn’t realised just how central he was to the policy direction of so many governments, championing issues like choice and competition in public services through multiple administrations and three political parties in government. I really enjoyed reading the years from 1997 onwards, remembering the comings and goings of various Ministers under New Labour and hearing about the Blair-Brown power struggles from this insider perspective. I was also fascinated hearing about the coalition negotiations in 2010 and how the Brexit referendum and its immediate aftermath were handled from his perspective.

What lightens the policy detail is the punctuation of holidays that the family took together and the personal stories of his life outside of work, through struggling with fertility issues, to making time for family and friends when various Prime Ministers always want you on the phone, and to the foreign holidays the family so clearly enjoyed, as a way of coping with the relentless demands of his job, and of Suzanne’s. But of course, this is also a sad journey, as you know from the beginning how it is going to end. It is very poignant to read about the times before his diagnosis when Suzanne describes his unexplained ailments and doctor’s appointments that led nowhere and you feel the frustration of why his cancer was not diagnosed sooner.

I was left feeling really glad that this unique perspective on British history had been so well documented and it’s a book I am recommending to all of my friends who are interested in British politics.