Sir Jeremy Heywood did not want to leave the job he loved. He had been on a leave of absence as he underwent cancer treatment but finally doctors had advised him that it was time to quit.
The decision was clearly a wrench. He departed saying: “I still have all that desire to serve my country and to make a positive difference.”
Since 2012, Heywood had been cabinet secretary, a role which many have dubbed the most powerful office in Britain. In various roles, he served in Downing Street under two Labour prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and two Conservative ones, David Cameron and Theresa May.
All four praised him in the most glowing terms. Blair called Heywood an “outstanding public servant” and May said he could “look back on a contribution to public life that few in our country can match”.
Cameron, the man who made Heywood head of the civil service, called him “the outstanding civil servant of his generation” and paid tribute to his “ability, judgment and temperament”, which allowed him to work with prime ministers of different parties. “I will never forget the brilliant work he did for me,” he said.
Brown told the Guardian that Heywood “has selflessly given to our country”. He added: “His brilliance and dynamism as leader of our civil service over so many years is matched only by the courage and fortitude he has shown in recent times in recovering from his illness.”
Many of Heywood’s colleagues have commented on his assiduous neutrality. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, praised him in glowing terms at prime minister’s questions, saying that in their conversations, he had been “an impressive, dedicated and well-informed public servant”.
Heywood himself said he wanted his time in office to be remembered for his determination “to challenge lazy thinking and to work with colleagues to find solutions, rather than simply identifying problems and obstacles, that everyone can admire”.
That grit meant at times he was a controversial figure, nicknamed “Sir Cover-Up” by much of the tabloid press, particularly when it emerged that he had vetoed the release to the Chilcot inquiry of 150 vital letters and records of phone calls between Blair and US president George Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war.
He has found himself at the centre of a number of crises and controversies, as an adviser to Norman Lamont when the pound tumbled out of the exchange rate mechanism, and in Downing Street where scandals included Cameron’s employment of News of the World’s Andy Coulson, Rupert Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB and ordering the Guardian to destroy the leaked Edward Snowden NSA files.
He made enemies among ministers and advisers in Whitehall too, enduring a public fallout with the then welfare secretary Iain Duncan-Smith about the delivery of universal credit, and with Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove’s former adviser who went on to head Vote Leave.
Cummings has often let rip at Heywood’s power, once telling an event that the cabinet secretary had Cameron “by the balls”.
Despite the “cover-up” nickname, Heywood has consistently argued he is the most transparent cabinet secretary ever, given the volume of material about government procurement and procedure which is now released into the public domain.
Born in Glossop, Derbyshire, Heywood first joined the civil service at the Health and Safety Executive 35 years ago, a civil service fast stream graduate with a first from Oxford. He began his tenure in Downing Street as economic and domestic policy secretary to Blair and became his principal private secretary two years later.
For a brief time, he left Whitehall for the City, working for Morgan Stanley from 2003 to 2007, but Brown was anxious to get him back into Downing Street when he took the reins, one of his closest allies told the Guardian in 2016.
“Jeremy’s like a drug. People get addicted to him quite quickly. Prime ministers are not sure about him at first. Then they say: ‘Umm, that’s rather good. I need that.’”
Tom Fletcher, a former ambassador and No 10 foreign policy advisor, said Heywood often “found humour in midst of battle”, but was a tough manager in Downing Street. “The five most terrifying words are Jeremy saying: ‘You need to grip this.’”