Jamie Rentoul: Senior civil servant in the Department of Health who also served as director of Tony Blair's Strategy Unit

His Civil Service interviewers asked him if he was always so laidback; he suavely replied that it was because they had put him at his ease

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Jamie Rentoul, who has died of cancer at the age of 50, was a distinguished civil servant. He joined the Department of Health as a fast-track recruit soon after leaving university, rising quickly to be at the centre of many of the biggest policy challenges facing the NHS, then ranging over domestic policy generally as director of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Tony Blair.

After a senior role at the Health Care Commission, the independent regulator that became the Care Quality Commission, he returned to the Health Department at director level, but his career was cut short by illness at the start of this year. 

The youngest of four children, Rentoul was born in Bangalore in 1964, and lived there with his family until he was five. Photos and family memories celebrate a joyful childhood, including summer holidays in the hill town of Ooty.

On leave and on their return to the UK, the family spent wonderful summer holidays on the island of Iona throughout the rest of his childhood, yards from the beach. After Rentoul’s son Billy was born in 1998, Iona became the favourite holiday destination for the new generation. Rentoul’s ashes will be scattered there later this summer.

Academically accomplished, he went to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1983, winning an Exhibition to read Natural Sciences, securing a First in Part I despite a bout of glandular fever, and then securing the top First in the University in finals in Psychology. In 1995, he went to Stanford, California to study for an MBA, where again he shone.

He also stood out as a footballer, representing Cambridge in the Varsity match at Wembley in 1984 and 1985; he missed his third Blue in 1986 only through injury. An elegant and accomplished centre back, he played football with a powerfully competitive spirit that he never lost, whether on the pitch, tennis court, ski slope, football table, rock face or climbing wall.

He was the embodiment of unflappability. After Cambridge, Rentoul joined the then Department of Health and Social Security. At his final civil service selection board the panel stopped the interview to ask him if he was always this laid-back. Already a master of civil-service suaveness, Rentoul assured the panel that this was only possible because they had put him at his ease.

He held a succession of increasingly senior jobs as a civil servant, working under John Moore, Kenneth Clarke, William Waldegrave and Virginia Bottomley as Secretaries of State for Health, in roles from speech writer to policy lead. He played a significant role in taking forward the legislation for tobacco control.

He spent more than 10 years on secondments from the Department; he joked that he was seeking a record for the longest period on the Department’s payroll without working for them. Under Tony Blair, Rentoul served for six years in the Cabinet Office, first as Deputy Head of the Performance and Innovation Unit and then as Executive Director of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.

He was Head of Strategy at the Health Care Commission, and went on to become the first Director of Regulation and Strategy at the new Care Quality Commission. When he left the CQC in 2010 to return to the Department of Health, observers noted that the Commission was losing one of its best brains.

His final job was as Director of Health and Wellbeing at the Department of Health. It is a sad irony but a fitting tribute to Rentoul that in this role he commissioned a campaign to promote earlier detection of cancer. Throughout his career, he brought an unwavering commitment to making a difference. Colleagues remember him as a caring, supportive and inspiring leader and colleague, and a dedicated mentor.

Rentoul had a strong creative side. He met his wife Rowena in 1990 at a ceramics class at Morley College in Lambeth, where he was a skilled and prolific student. He was also an avid and accomplished photographer. He was a proud and loving father and husband and a supportive champion of Rowena’s career as a ceramic artist. When terminally ill, he completed an album of photos recalling the treehouse he and Billy designed and built together in their garden.

Rentoul was cherished as a friend by people who met him at all stages of his life. He was the central figure in a group of friends from university, who established and maintained close bonds that lasted over 30 years till his death. We all experienced a sense of fun and happiness when spending time with him, at big events and casual get-togethers.

Rentoul was always brilliant in debate, helped by his fearsomely strong memory. He was also fantastically kind and supportive to his friends at times of need. We looked up to him as a friend and as someone to turn to. I feel proud and grateful to have been a friend of his.

He is survived by his wife Rowena, son Billy, parents Robert and Mary, brother John – a journalist for The Independent – and sisters Sue and Brigid.

William James Rentoul, senior civil servant: born Bangalore, India 8 July 1964; married Rowena Brown (one son); died London 12 May 2015.