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Politicians celebrate life of Lord Jeremy Heywood at Westminster Abbey service

UK News | Published:

Prime Minister Theresa May and three of her predecessors paid tribute to the former head of the Civil Service who died of cancer last year.

Thanksgiving service for Sir Jeremy Heywood

Senior figures from across the political spectrum have gathered at Westminster Abbey for a memorial service to celebrate the life and work of a former cabinet secretary.

Lord Jeremy Heywood, who spent four years as head of the Civil Service, died of cancer in November last year at the age of 56, days after retiring through ill-health.

Lord Heywood Thanksgiving Service
Lord Heywood died of cancer last November (John Stillwell/PA)

His position as one of Whitehall’s most senior mandarins under four successive prime ministers led him to be regarded as a key behind-the-scenes influence in the shaping of modern Britain.

Casting aside any political differences, Prime Minister Theresa May and her predecessors, David Cameron, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, gathered at Westminster Abbey on Thursday for a thanksgiving service.

Lord Heywood Thanksgiving Service
Prime Minister Theresa May attended with three of her predecessors, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron (Henry Nicholls/PA)

They were joined by Lord Heywood’s wife, Suzanne, his family, friends and former colleagues, as well as civil servants and political figures, including ex-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and former chancellor George Osborne, as they marked his work and life.

In a testimony delivered without notes, Mrs May hailed Lord Heywood as “the greatest public servant of our time”, adding that he was “not just an extraordinary adviser but an extraordinary doer”.

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“Nothing stopped him until he found a solution,” she said. “Whatever the issue was, Jeremy always sorted it and time and time again.”

Lord Heywood Thanksgiving Service
Former prime minister Sir John Major and his wife Norma leave Westminster Abbey after the service (Yui Mok/PA)

Mr Cameron stressed that not only was Lord Heywood a great man, but a “good man in every sense of the word”.

He added: “Loyal, incredibly hard-working, a team player and with a deep moral sense of right and wrong. He possessed a huge brain and he devoted it to public service, and the nation should be grateful.”

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In a cross-party show of respect, Mr Blair remarked that Lord Heywood not only represented the Civil Service, but lived it and “defended it in the face of politics high or low”.

Lord Heywood Thanksgiving Service
Chancellor Philip Hammond speaks to former prime minister David Cameron (right) and former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (left) during the service (Henry Nicholls/PA)

Mr Clegg celebrated Lord Heywood’s tenacity and intellect, and Mr Brown described him as a “creative genius in the thick of it”, adding that he was a “great man” who “achieved so much in so little time”.

“In May 2010 I left a handwritten note to David Cameron saying something like ‘The country is in good hands, Jeremy is running it’,” he said to laughter.

Among other attendees were Alastair Campbell, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, David and Ed Miliband, as well as Amber Rudd, Brandon Lewis, James Brokenshire, David Lidington, Greg Clarke, Matt Hancock, Julian Smith, Brexit adviser Olly Robbins and current Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.

Lord Heywood, then Sir Jeremy, became Cabinet Secretary in 2012 and previously served as principal private secretary to prime ministers Mr Blair and Mr Brown, chief of staff to Mr Brown and Downing Street permanent secretary to Mr Cameron.

Lord Heywood Thanksgiving Service
Former prime minister Tony Blair with Prime Minister Theresa May at the Westminster Abbey service (Yui Mok/PA)

The father-of-three revealed earlier last year that he had been diagnosed with cancer in June 2017, but remained in post during a summer of political upheaval triggered by the shock general election result.

Taking a leave of absence last June, he announced on October 24 that he was stepping down, with then acting Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark taking over the role on a permanent basis.

Investitures at Buckingham Palace
Sir Jeremy Heywood with his wife Suzanne after he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath by the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace (John Stillwell/PA)

He was invested as Lord Heywood of Whitehall in October last year in recognition of his distinguished service to public life.

Addressing the congregation, his widow, Lady Heywood, highlighted that, despite the demands of his job, her husband had the ability to be “completely present when he was with us despite the many challenges of his working life”.

During the hour-long service, Welsh singer Cerys Matthews sang Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, and the Abbey’s bells were rung at the end of the memorial event.

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