Donald Macintyre's Sketch: When it comes to Chilcot, Sir Jeremy Heywood is less Yes Minister, more Wolf Hall


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It’s just as well that Sir John Chilcot will be at the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee next month to try to explain why, at five years and counting, his inquiry has, as Sir John himself said, “taken longer than any of us expected”.

Because Sir Jeremy Heywood, easily the most powerful civil servant in Whitehall, wasn’t much help on all that. Apparently he was as puzzled – and of course as “frustrated”– as the rest of us by the delay. He was however jolly sure about what it wasn’t - anything to do with him, for a start.

There had been a “disagreement… between departments as to whether certain very sensitive documents… should be published as Sir John Chilcot wanted to”. Sir Jeremy had been brought in “in line with protocol… and over a matter of weeks we resolved that”. Agreement had been reached with Sir John on what would be published, including the memos between Tony Blair and George W Bush with only “very few redactions”. He had shown a “bias towards transparency.” Hey presto!

He didn’t say for how many weeks the “disagreement” had lasted –  anything from a few to a couple of hundred for all we knew. But he was quite sure too that no one who had got “Maxwellisation” letters with draft excerpts of the report criticising them – presumably including his old boss Tony Blair – was spinning it out to ensure the inquiry reported after the election. Here and elsewhere in the Public Administration Committee hearing consistency was not exactly Sir J’s strong point. First he said he didn’t know who had had the letters. But then he said that “one or two people I know who have received them” were as keen “as anyone in this room to see the process brought to a conclusion”.

The Cabinet Secretary is less Yes Minister than Wolf Hall. The Thomases Wolsey and Cromwell, as depicted in the current TV series, were equally indispensable to their master. Or masters. Heywood is not a cleric like the Cardinal, and a mildly shiny pair of cufflinks was his only concession to Wolseyan luxury. But he went to Oxford (Hertford college, whereas Wolsey was a Magdalen man). And just as Wolsey graduated from serving Henry VII to Henry VIII, so Heywood has seamlessly moved between Labour and Tory PMs.  

True, the Tudor-era pair would have been puzzled by today’s subsequent discussion of “Civil Service skills”, a journey without maps into Jargonia. We were quickly lost in Sir Jeremy’s world of “horizon setting”, “functional leadership”, “mainstream skills”  (like understanding Europe) and issues being on his “dashboard”. The Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland, a scourge of this Whitehall-speak, complained about Civil Service references to “stove-piping”, which means departments not properly sharing and analysing information. Or something. Heywood disavowed the term and then – inconsistency alert again – moments later referred to “particular stovepipes”.

But they would have instantly recognised Heywood’s sterling work in defending the PM’s direction of taxpayer-funded special advisers (Spads) to join the telephone canvassing teams in the Rochester by-election. Work which made the committee extremely cross since, from the chairman Bernard Jenkin down, they believed it was an “unlawful” breach of the Whitehall code, “bending the rules” and “a reinterpretation too far”. Heywood stuck to his line, while admitting he hadn’t taken “formal” legal advice. Jenkin suggested Heywood try the Attorney General who, he was confident, would agree with Jenkin. This was all pretty uncomfortable for Heywood. But at least he won’t be sent to the scaffold like Thomas Cromwell. The House of Lords, more likely.