Poor David Cameron. Not an expression which comes readily to mind.
One of the mysteries of the book publishing world is the enormous advances paid to politicians for their memoirs. Fierce battles between publishing houses, no doubt three-way struggles between commissioning editor, finance director, and very happy writer’s agent, seem to produce marvellous sums of dosh. And for what? Harold MacMillan wrote a pretty turgid set of reminiscences in six volumes (he did own the publishing firm though). Anthony Eden restricted himself to three volumes, keeping his secrets by making them pretty unreadable. In mitigation, in great old age he wrote a slim volume, Another World, about his childhood and First World War service which is beautifully written, very moving, and showed a sensitive and fascinating man under that patrician crust.
Margaret Thatcher managed to get her life into two volumes, the first one dealing with her period of high office, and the second starting from the famous Grantham grocer’s shop, but left it to Charles Moore in a further three volumes to tell the truth, whole and nothing but. Most surprisingly, Tony Blair dealt with his whole life in one quite slim volume, which though it reveals not much about his ministry, does tell a lot about the man himself – rather to his credit.
To be fair, it is not easy as a senior cabinet minister to reveal all. The Cabinet Office does not like revelations – any revelations at all one suspects – and certainly likes to delete anything that might impact on current matters or policies or on persons now living if they might suffer disadvantage. That means proposed memoires, no matter how senior the autobiographer, must be submitted to those in Cabinet Office equipped with green, red, and thick black pencils. This, rumour has it, was a particular problem to David Cameron, who in spite of the comforts of country retreat, a shepherd’s hut and an alleged £800,000 advance, struggled to get finger to laptop, then to be bounced about on the pencils of Whitehall censorship. Alas, poor David. Not only is his book, For The Record, (just one volume), published only 16 months ago, already heavily discounted at Abe Books (down from £35 to around £8) (there’s an advance William Collins must be regretting), he was then considerably upstaged by the saucy volume of Lady Swire. Sasha Swire, a very well connected Tory and wife of junior minister, Hugo, was part of the Cameron inner circle. She was. She probably isn’t now. Her book told a few juicy tales about our former Prime Minister which do not improve his reputation but has certainly helped Lady Swire’s book fly off the shelves.
And now DC is once again facing embarrassment from tales told out of school, and once again by a lady, indeed, a Lady. Lady Heywood of Whitehall. Not tittle tattle this time though, heavyweight revelations, and not about Lady Heywood’s distinguished career, which though is worth summarizing. She took degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, was fast tracked into H.M. Treasury where she rose rapidly, leaving after only four years to join McKinsey and Company, rising to a partnership within ten years, and then into various senior and distinguished posts in the commercial and arts worlds. Her book though is about the even more astonishing career of her late husband, Jeremy Heywood, a man of modest background but great intellect, who also joined the Treasury, becoming at the age of only 30 Principal Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, and talent spotted in 1997 into the Prime Minister’s Office by Tony Blair, becoming his Principal Private Secretary in 1999. He had a career blip by becoming embroiled in the David Kelly affair in 2003, resigned to go into commerce, but returned to the Civil Service in 2007; rising through various senior and highly sensitive jobs to become Cabinet Secretary in 2012, and then Head of the Home Civil Service in 2014. It was a career path that placed him in some of the most sensitive seats in the senior civil service, made him a close and much relied upon confidante of leading politicians at crucial points in British history, and enabled him to develop a reputation as an exceptionally safe and talented pair of hands. His later career was dogged by ill-health, and he died in late 2017 just after taking early retirement and being created a peer by Theresa May.
During his last months of life he worked closely with his wife to draft a book about his life and career, and it is that which has just been published*. According to Lady H, the book had been largely written by her husband before his death and although completed by her, and published under her name, is essentially his and as he would have wished it. Which is interesting, as under current Civil Service rules regarding staff publishing material about their careers, he would be unlikely to have received consent for parts of the book; the more interesting parts, it has to be said.
In this case there is in practice little that could be done to stop publication, it being carefully positioned as a biography, not a memoire, and there is no evidence that any attempt was made. Lady Heywood has hinted that David Cameron did at least try to hold it up until after his own volume was published, though whether so as to get his version of events on the street first or so as not to damage his sales is not made clear.
Neither Lord and Lady Heywood were part of the traditional British establishment. Lady Heywood was mostly home-educated on a modest yacht sailing the Pacific, and Lord H was schooled at a Quaker boarding school. They have a degree of modest radicalism about their careers and lives, always happy to consider new ways of doing things – no harm in that. They were not over-modest – the title which Jeremy Heywood took, Heywood of Whitehall, raised an eyebrow or two, and the new book’s title - “What Does Jeremy Think?” - suggests a level of deferral to an advisor which might be better modestly played down. The book itself does reveal a lot more than is traditional about the relationships between senior politicians and their advisors, and as to how government works at that rarefied level. You may again be thinking; “well, no harm in that either”. But is there?
Let us return briefly to Jeremy’s career misstep in 2003. The cause of his departure from Whitehall to the much more richly rewarded pastures of Morgan Stanley and merchant banking, was a breach of Civil Service rules. He was in various meetings regarding the death of David Kelly, the scientist embroiled in the Iraq weapons of mass destruction claims. Heywood however did not minute parts of those meetings. It seems unlikely that he took that decision off his own bat, but that is why there are Civil Service rules on minute-taking, and lots of other matters; so that politicians may be held to account in the future. It shows, as do other elements of his life, a degree of somewhat headstrong independence. He seems to have been perhaps more assertive in his advice and views than most Sir Humphrey’s have traditionally regarded as entirely wise; albeit many political leaders perhaps welcomed greater directness from their advisors.
The problem, one might argue, is not the detail, but the implication. There are no great ground-shaking revelations about dangerous events or things said in this book, but what is unusual is that it has been published now, still so close to the happenings that Heywood was advising on; Iraq and Brexit in particular are still in play. He was very central to both those matters, and the impression is that he played a more crucial role than some civil servants – and observers of that institution – would find usual. It also rather gives the impression that Jeremy was not a team man, but that matters were concentrated into his own hands, leaving a void that proved difficult to fill. Certainly he went on working, even from his bed, until very shortly before his death. Equally certainly, Sir Mark Sedwill and Simon Case, his successors as Head of the Civil Service, have maintained a much lower profile.
Lord Heywood was a highly distinguished, hard working, and loyal servant of the crown. His wife has recorded a life devoted to his country and its values. It is a book that will be of great interest to political observers and scholars. But like royalty, sometimes it is better that magic cannot be seen, at least until some time after the illusion has passed, and one cannot help but wonder if publication of this work might have been more prudently delayed for a few more years.
*“What Does Jeremy Think?” Suzanne Heywood, published by Harper Collins, c.£25