Britain’s last five prime ministers have gathered to pay tribute to a former cabinet secretary hailed by Theresa May as the “greatest public servant of our time”.
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.
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.
Prime Minister Theresa May and her predecessors, David Cameron, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Sir John Major gathered at Westminster Abbey on Thursday for a thanksgiving service.
They were joined by Lord Heywood’s widow, Suzanne, his family, friends and former colleagues, as well as civil servants and a raft of political figures, including ex-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and former chancellor George Osborne.
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”.
“Nothing stopped him until he found a solution,” she said.
“Whatever the issue was, Jeremy always sorted it and time and time again.”
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.”
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”.
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, 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.
He became head of the Civil Service in 2014.
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.
He was invested as Lord Heywood of Whitehall on October 30 in recognition of his distinguished service to public life which he accepted on behalf of the Civil Service.
Addressing the congregation, 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 service which was more than an hour long, 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.