Politics 24 October 2018 | 13:12

Thank you, Sir Jeremy Heywood

24 October 2018 13:12

You may have been wondering who has been running the country for the past two years, as the political class has lost the plot in the most embarrassing and public way. And the person responsible, more than any other, for ensuring that the United Kingdom has not descended into total bloody chaos is none other than Sir Jeremy Heywood.

If you haven’t heard of him, that is because, since January 2012, he has been Cabinet Secretary (absorbing the role of Head of the Home Civil Service in September 2014); and, as a Whitehall official, rarely speaks in public. He is bound by the impartiality rules that bind our civil service and – along with extremely rigorous selection procedures – ensure that it remains, indisputably, the best in the world.

Today, Heywood, who has been suffering from cancer, has announced that he is standing down. ‘Despite a number of recent noises off from anonymous commentators,’ he says in his resignation statement, ‘I believe that the service is in robust health, well-equipped to provide the support the country needs over the coming months and years.’

He’s right about the service and right to take elegant aim at those who have so lazily sniped at senior officials in the past few months, alleging (absurdly) that they are to blame for the impasse in the Brexit negotiations. In fact, without the diligence and high intellectual calibre of Whitehall’s top civil servants, the talks with Brussels would have broken down completely long ago; as, for that matter, would the government of the country.

Nick Pearce, the former head of the Number Ten police unit, has joked: ‘If we had a written constitution in this country, it would have to say something like “Notwithstanding the fact that Jeremy Heywood will always be at the centre of power, we are free and equal citizens.”’ And it is true that Heywood has been a consistent presence at the very heart of government for many years. He was Principal Private Secretary to both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Downing Street Chief of Staff under the latter prime minister, and Downing Street Permanent Secretary under David Cameron, before assuming the roles from which he has stood down today.

When I was researching my book on the Cameron Coalition, one senior Tory told me that ‘Jeremy is like Batman. Gotham City needs Batman – and Jeremy fills that space.’ That’s precisely the sort of colourful image that senior officials are encouraged to avoid as they get on quietly with making things happen, transcending party politics and tribal rhetoric to ensure that stuff gets done.

They don’t get much public recognition and most of them could earn vastly more in the private sector. In age of celebrity, digital shrillness and politics-as-showbusiness, they continue to exemplify the values of service, competence and intellect as a basis for action.

So, the departure of Heywood – to whom DRUGSTORE CULTURE wishes a speedy recovery and great success in the House of Lords – is a good moment to express gratitude to the thin, besuited line of officials who stand every day between us and unpredictable bedlam.