Suzanne Heywood has provided an invaluable contribution to the historical record. Her book is also a testament to her enormous personal strength and bravery. Jeremy Heywood was both a great man and a loving husband and father, but it cannot have been easy living with someone who disappeared before dawn, while bringing up three children and rising to become a senior partner at McKinsey. Amid the relentless politics, there is a very touching story here of the highs and lows of balancing careers, a relationship and domestic life. The basic humanity that shines through, from both the author and her husband, is perhaps the book’s most important and enduring tribute.
Taken as a whole, this is a fitting tribute to an important public servant and a valuable insider account for political junkies. Yet Heywood’s lengthy time at the centre of events results in only brief chapters on each of them. At several key moments you crave more. Brexit is disappointingly thin, and overgenerous to Heywood. The most newsworthy part of the book is a memo Heywood wrote to Cameron in December 2012, just before he announced a referendum on EU membership.
Heywood’s cancer diagnosis came on the day of the Grenfell Tower disaster in June 2017. Despite feeling exhausted, he kept working holding the fort for Theresa May. “While the prime minister’s popularity plummeted and rumours swirled of a coup against her, he continued to provide calm leadership.” That is what Heywood offered throughout his career, which is why at his memorial service five party leaders stood side by side to pay tribute. This book captures both the humanity and the intelligence of the man.
One lasting question is whether Heywood was too good. His skill in pursuing a middle way arguably let May believe that a Brexit compromise existed between what the EU would accept and the UK parliament would back. It didn’t. Had someone said, “No, prime minister” forcefully after the 2017 election, it is possible that the country would have been spared her the battles with parliament and own party that finally brought her down. “Too good”, though, is not a criticism made often of government. There is no question about how much Heywood has been missed.
This is at least half a memoir, as it is based on Heywood’s own recollections, notes and conversations with his wife, as well as her extensive interviews with former colleagues and political masters. But there are few revelations about recent events – the global financial crisis, Brexit – and little salacious gossip about politicians... Where the book succeeds is in conveying the atmosphere of life at the centre of a succession of crises. Whether it was coordinating Gordon Brown’s nationalisation of much of the UK banking system, or in watching and rewatching security camera footage to establish whether Andrew Mitchell said the word “pleb”, Heywood threw himself entirely into his work. In that respect What Does Jeremy Think? will be invaluable as a source for scholars and historians both as to how, when, why and by whom certain decisions were taken, and to what the decision-making process within government looks like up close.