Jeremy Heywood succeeded not just because of his intelligence – but his empathy

The former civil service head wasn’t just one of the most powerful men in Whitehall. He was also one of the nicest.

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Editor’s note: Jeremy Heywood died of cancer aged 56 on 2 November, shortly after retiring on health grounds on 24 October.

“Norman won’t sign this. You need to redraft it”.  Jeremy Heywood had only been at the Treasury a couple of years longer than me, but already he knew what the minister wanted, not only without even needing to ask him but before he knew it himself.

Four years on, and Jeremy had first become my friend, then my tenant, and then my boss.  Both he and Norman Lamont had been promoted multiple times, and I too had graduated to the Chancellor’s office as the speechwriter.

 We were in the eye of the storm – the United Kingdom was in recession, but economic policy was stuck, with interest rates remaining high to maintain sterling’s position in the Exchange Rate Mechanism.  Nevertheless, Jeremy was still – as he is now - a workaholic and a perfectionist, and my drafts still came back covered in meticulously neat and grammatically elegant corrections. 

We watched the 1992 general election together, with Suma Chakrabarti, who now runs the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. I’ve no idea which way he voted then – if indeed he did vote- or any time since.  As the result – not the one I was hoping for – became clearer, Suma and I got drunker, and more voluble; Jeremy chain-smoked, as impassive as ever.  I wasn’t with him on the night of the 2017 election – not long after his diagnosis - but imagine much the same reaction, minus the cigarettes.  

We all returned to work the next day – Norman Lamont possibly even more hungover than me – and five months later it all came apart with the UK’s chaotic exit from the ERM, despite Jeremy’s best efforts to find an escape hatch for the Chancellor, the Treasury and the government as I described here.

My memory of much of this period is blurred by time (and perhaps other factors).  But what I remember most is how much fun, how challenging, and how fulfilling, it was working with and for Jeremy – arguing with him about what the right thing to do was or what the right answer was, and then see him work out how to turn that into reality.  

And while we were older, wiser (I hope) and certainly more responsible (especially in his case) it was the same during the next period of great economic turbulence, in 2008, when he was Gordon Brown’s Permanent Secretary and I was the Cabinet Office Chief Economist.  Much has been written about whether Gordon Brown “saved the world”.  I’m in the camp of those who think that, while this is hyperbolic, it’s not wrong.  But wherever you stand, there’s no doubt, as Gordon would be the first to admit, that he couldn’t have done it without Jeremy.

Jeremy is extremely intelligent, of course.  But it would be a mistake to attribute his extraordinary career – I once described him as “the most powerful person nobody has ever heard of”, although that changed a little in recent years – primarily, or even mostly, to that. When we joined the Treasury, it was – as it still is – full of exceptionally bright kids who think that they can run the British economy with a little bit of economics 101 and a large dose of self-confidence.

But Jeremy had more than that. 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.

And it was this that made him such a good negotiator and deal-maker on behalf of successive Prime Ministers: he could talk to four Cabinet Ministers, give each of them a slightly different – but still accurate – picture of what the key issues were and what the PM’s views were, and construct an agreed outcome that would leave each of them thinking she had won. 

The textbook description of the role of the civil service is to provide impartial, objective advice to Ministers, who then decide. Meanwhile, the Yes Minister parody – the civil service, whose primary interests are to maintain the status quo, and with it, their own power – still has a powerful hold over the public imagination.  Neither is accurate.  Civil servants who “speak truth to power” by telling ministers that their pet policy ideas are crazy and unworkable don’t get far.  But simply nodding along and promising to deliver the undeliverable is not only a betrayal of the responsibilities of a civil servant but is what leads to policy disasters like Universal Credit. 

Being a good civil servant is about squaring the circle – analysis combined with persuasion, vision combined with realism.  Nobody did, or does, that better than Jeremy.  It was a privilege and an honour – but most of all a pleasure – to work with him. As we approach the third great crisis for UK economic policy of my, and his, adult life – the slow-motion car-crash of the Brexit negotiations – he will be much missed.

Jonathan Portes is Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College, London, and member of Global Future's advisory board