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20 November 2019updated 03 Sep 2021 12:41pm

Jeremy Heywood 1961-2018: former civil service head dies of cancer

Theresa May said Heywood, who served four prime ministers and two chancellors, “worked tirelessly to serve our country” and “is a huge loss to British public life.”

By George Eaton

Jeremy Heywood, the former head of the civil service and one of the UK’s most admired public servants, has died from cancer aged 56. Heywood, who worked under four prime ministers and two chancellors, retired as cabinet secretary on 24 October on health grounds.

His wife Suzanne paid tribute to a “wonderful father” who “crammed a huge amount into his 56 years”.

She said: “He saw it as a huge privilege to work so closely with four prime ministers and two chancellors and was unwavering in his efforts to help each of them reach their goals.

“He was always conscious of the need for civil servants to see the world through ministers’ eyes while at the same time respecting the boundaries between politicians and civil servants.

“Away from his work, he inspired admiration, respect and affection in his many and diverse group of friends and returned it to them.

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“Jeremy could light up any room or conversation and loved hosting a good party.”

Heywood, who was nominated for a life peerage by Theresa May following his retirement, was appointed cabinet secretary in January 2012 and head of the civil service in September 2012. Prior to this, he served as permanent secretary at No.10 and held senior roles including principal private secretary to the prime minister, head of corporate and management change at the Treasury, and principal private secretary to chancellors Norman Lamont and Kenneth Clarke.

Having become PPS to Lamont at the age of 30, he worked to contain the damage from “Black Wednesday” – the UK’s 1992 exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism – after less than a month in the post. 

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Heywood was born in Glossop, Derbyshire, to Peter Heywood, an English teacher at independent Quaker school Bootham, and Brenda Heywood, who was one of the first women in Britain to become a professional archaeologist. After graduating with a BA in History and Economics from Hertford College, Oxford, and an MSc in Economics from the London School of Economics, Heywood joined the civil service in 1986.

Theresa May, who Heywood served until his retirement, said: “This is extremely sad news and all of my thoughts are with Jeremy’s family and friends.

“The many retirement tributes paid to Jeremy from across the political spectrum in recent weeks demonstrated his extraordinary talent supporting and advising prime ministers and ministers, and leading the civil service with distinction.

“He worked tirelessly to serve our country in the finest traditions of the civil service and he is a huge loss to British public life.

“I will always be grateful for the support which he gave me personally and will remember his achievements across his career as we regret that he did not have the chance to offer his talents for longer in retirement.

“Jeremy will be sorely missed and I send my deepest condolences to Suzanne and the children and to all his family and many friends.”

Mark Sedwill, Heywood’s successor as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, said: “Jeremy made an immense contribution to public life, serving four prime ministers with distinction. He joined the civil service in 1983, advising and supporting governments through some of the most challenging episodes of the last 30 years. Jeremy was the exemplary public servant.

“We will miss him more than we can say, and will be the poorer without his advice, leadership and extraordinary insight. He set the highest standards and challenged us to meet them. Jeremy was always looking to move difficult problems forward, restlessly confident to deliver a better way. He was a champion of innovation and embraced change while consolidating and protecting the best of history. He promoted a diverse and inclusive civil service, fit to meet the digital, commercial and policy challenges of the future.

“Jeremy also considered it a privilege to lead the hundreds of thousands of civil servants up and down the country, and across the world, who work day after day to make people’s lives better.

“We offer our condolences and best wishes to Jeremy’s wife Suzanne, his three children, the rest of his family and their friends.”

In a recent piece for the New Statesman, Jonathan Portes, who worked alongside Heywood at the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, wrote that he suceeded not just because of his “extreme intelligence” but his “empathy”.

Portes wrote: “He had empathy, which most of the rest of us lacked.  This manifested itself an almost preternatural ability to think himself into other people’s shoes and to work out where they were coming from. Or where they would be coming from once he had explained to them why it was in their best interests.“