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How did the UK’s most powerful civil servant fall for Lex Greensill? | Andy Beckett

Jeremy Heywood was lauded as ‘the greatest public servant of our time’. Did his veneration of the private sector lead him astray?

Jeremy Heywood was always a bit of a mystery. Even by the opaque standards of the British state, the motivations of the late cabinet secretary and the enormous power he wielded in Whitehall – from 1997 until shortly before his premature death in 2018 – are hard to explain completely. For four successive prime ministers, he was a fixer, confidant, crisis manager, peacemaker, policy assessor and key contact with the outside world. For the civil service as a whole, he was a dominant figure: seemingly ubiquitous, forever laying out in his quick, soft voice exactly how things should be done. Often, this was not how they had been done before.

In February, his widow, Suzanne Heywood, published a memoir about him, What Does Jeremy Think? Jeremy Heywood and the Making of Modern Britain. There are quotes from all the prime ministers he worked with on the back cover. “The words ‘civil servant’ seem too dry to describe greatness,” gushes Tony Blair. Yet despite being more than 500 pages long, and full of sometimes revealing personal and Downing Street details, the book leaves intriguing gaps. There is little about Heywood’s political beliefs – or why he appeared to lack them, despite his era’s increasing ideological polarisation. And there is nothing about the controversial Australian financier Lex Greensill, whom Heywood reportedly brought into David Cameron’s administration as an adviser, and seems to have energetically supported despite widespread opposition from Whitehall.

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