ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Jeremy Heywood was the best of British
PUBLISHED: 09:07 09 November 2018
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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Former-head of the Civil Service, Jeremy Heywood, was living proof that fairness and impartiality are essential
The news that Jeremy Heywood had died came through just as Arron Banks was getting his make up on in advance of his weekend joust at the BBC. Talk about the good dying young, while the bad get their chosen platform for Bulls**t, Bluster and Conspiracy. Heywood was 56.
Part of Banks’ shtick is that anyone who challenges or criticises him must have their own vested interest, usually a political one. So any mention of the Observer, the Financial Times, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, the Electoral Commission, Channel 4, indeed anyone who asks any inconvenient questions of the self-styled Bad Boy of Brexit, is met with eye-rolling which, when he starts to feel the heat, turns into something nastier.
There is no such thing, in Banks’ world, as fairness or impartiality. You are either with him, and prepared to believe whatever version of events he is putting out at the time; or you are against him, in which case be prepared for an avalanche of abuse, and a shower of smears, all designed to question your motives. Not for nothing is Donald Trump his hero.
Heywood was living proof that fairness and impartiality, and a commitment to genuine public service, are possible, and necessary, in public policy and debate. I worked with many excellent civil servants when part of the Blair and Brown teams, and Heywood was at the very top of the tree, long before he actually became the head of the Civil Service.
Of course merely to say that, should these words come across Banks’ radar, would be to set off more eye-rolling, have him turning to his grinning sidekick Andy Wigmore, citing praise from me as further “proof” that the Civil Service is stacked full of mad Remoaners trying to thwart the will of the people, and turn the prime minister away from the path of the purest Brexit of all, the one that allows right-wing ideologues to turn the UK into a low tax, low regulation tax haven, like the one that hands out passports to people like them.
Yet, as was clear from the tributes, Heywood made exactly the same impression on Tory politicians as he did on Tony Blair, who my diaries record as once observing: “I wish we had two or three more like him.”
I first came across Heywood when I was a journalist, and he was a young private secretary working for then chancellor Norman Lamont, a job he took on about a month before Black Wednesday, in 1992. A baptism of fire indeed.
Lamont was a very different sort of character to his successor, Kenneth Clarke, and both were very different to Gordon Brown, who took over the Treasury in 1997. But Heywood served all three with real dedication, an extraordinary capacity for work, an unflappable temperament – there was always plenty going on that others would flap about – and a capacity to get on with just about everyone.
There is inevitably, at times, tension between the political and the civil service arms of government. But I never once felt that with Heywood, for whom Number 10, where he became a key part of the TB team, was the obvious next step from the Treasury.
In the Banks’ view of the world, that would surely suggest that the so-called impartial civil servant just became a New Labour lackey. Yet, both David Cameron and Theresa May, the two Tory prime ministers of the four for whom he worked directly in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, said exactly the same thing as Blair and Brown – that Heywood was a true and dedicated servant of the government of the day.
But nor are civil servants machines. They are human beings like the rest of us. And the best of them understand that politics is about humanity, about human beings making decisions on behalf of others, in order, hopefully, to improve the lives of the people who elected them. Heywood was as good at reading people as he was situations. It would be hard to imagine four politicians as varied in personality as TB, GB, Cameron and May. Yet every single one of them, and their teams, benefited hugely from having him alongside them.
He became a good friend. Flicking through my diaries for memories and reflections before heading to the television studios to record tributes on Sunday afternoon, I recalled he was one of the few, and one of the first, people I confided in when reaching the end of my own road at Downing Street in 2003, not least because he too was considering leaving around the same time.
Indeed he did so, for a while working for a major bank. I was later part of the effort to persuade him to come back, in large part because by then, he and I were on an all too short list of people that both TB and GB were still speaking to, and more or less trusted. So he had been there at the start, as Brown enter the Treasury in 1997, and he was there at the end, by then Number 10 chief of staff, and the conduit to Buckingham Palace as the inconclusive general election led to the formation of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2010. And he had been there ever since, until his recent departure when it was clear he did not have long to live.
As his wife Suzanne said in her own moving tribute: “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.”
The steady drumbeat of attacks on civil servants since the referendum by the Bankses, Farages, Rees-Moggs, David Davises and Steve Bakers of this world suggests that in their ideology these are distinctions the Brextremists cannot, or will not, see. Civil servants must be impartial. That does not mean they are independent, with their own agenda and interests to pursue. Heywood did not confuse impartiality with independence.
My last contact with him came on the day of the People’s Vote march a few weeks ago, and illustrates both his human side, and also how seriously he took his responsibilities to his fellow civil servants. Shortly after I got home, someone sent me a photo of a man walking past Westminster Abbey, carrying a blue canvas bag and a Pret sandwich, just as the rally which followed the march was drawing to a close. “I think this is Olly Robbins!’ said the message. Robbins, as many of you will know, is Theresa May’s chief Brexit negotiator.
The People’s Vote campaigner in me momentarily thought, “wow, Olly Robbins was on the march!” That moment passed very quickly, and the person who knows Olly Robbins thought “No, that is impossible”. Both those parts of me knew, however, that the Brextremists would have no such qualms about using such a picture to attack him. I tried to contact Robbins, unsuccessfully, so instead warned Heywood this picture was doing the rounds.
I knew his illness had taken a turn for the worse, but did not know just how badly, and it was then that he told me he would not be returning to work, that it was a matter of when, not if, he died.
Despite that, he quickly organised for someone to establish the facts – Robbins had been en route from Number 10 to see one of his children take part in a musical event – and we then had a few exchanges about his concerns about Jose Mourinho’s management of his favoured football club. I did the thing we all do when we get given bad news about someone else’s health – “anything I can do, let me know”. “Don’t worry,” he said “if you’re doing the People’s Vote campaign, you have enough on your plate.”
On the Banks/Brextremist radar, that could be another ‘Aha’ moment – “Aha -People’s Vote advisor conspires with top civil servant to protect one of their own, then top civil servant urges People’s Vote advisor to worry about the campaign, not his cancer.”
In fact, knowing him as I did, what those words meant were this: “I am too far gone to be helped, and if you’re doing the People’s Vote campaign, you need all your energies for that, because the government is determined to deliver Brexit without one. Sorry, but that’s our job.” He did it brilliantly, to the very end.