Horizon scanners cannot save Jeremy Heywood from MPs’ well-aimed flak
Head of civil service questioned about delays to Chilcot inquiry and accused of letting prime minister pressurise him
As the serving cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, and, at the start of the Iraq war, principal private secretary to Tony Blair, Sir Jeremy Heywood was at pains to reassure the public administration select committee of his total commitment to transparency. Albeit a transparency that verged on opacity.
How did he feel about the delays to the Chilcot inquiry, asked Labour’s Paul Flynn. “Deeply frustrated,” Heywood replied, resisting his natural impulse to point out that delaying inconvenient reports was a sign of a job well done.
Would there be an audit trail of his interventions?
“Definitely not,” said Heywood, crossing his fingers.
Redactions in the transcripts of phone calls between Tony Blair and George W Bush? A few spelling mistakes had had to be taken out.
Did he know anyone who was in the process of Maxwellisation (which gives individuals an opportunity to respond to provisional criticism in the inquiry’s report)?
“Absolutely not,” he insisted, before inadvertently letting on that two people had told him they were being Maxwellised. That kind of careless talk costs lives.
Having confirmed he had done nothing in regard to Chilcot, Heywood next confirmed that he hadn’t given a moment’s thought to which party or parties might form the next government, though he was sure that whoever it was would do exactly what he said. Heywood knows exactly who runs the country: he does.
What’s more, Heywood knew exactly the type of talent he was looking to work under him. “I have a talent matrix to measure talent,” he announced.
Bemusement turned to outright amazement when he went on to add that “functional leaders manage functions”.
Conservative Cheryl Gillan asked what leadership skills he was looking for in the civil service. Heywood said he was setting up an inquiry into that and hoped to report back in five or six years. Or possibly later, if things went well.
Lib Dem Greg Mulholland was concerned about reports that the civil service was now full of “horizon scanners” and “stove-pipers”. What did these people do?
Heywood was outraged. There were absolutely no stove-pipers, and if there were they were only a very small team – a specialist cell – and “they were getting ahead of the in-tray”.
As for the horizon scanners, they were looking between the cracks.
Labour’s Paul Flynn couldn’t resist going for the kill.
“Had the horizon scanners investigated drones?” he said, as straight-faced as possible. Heywood didn’t get the joke.
“No they hadn’t,” he snapped. “But if the drones did need investigating then our horizon scanners will be on to them.”
The limitations of the horizon scanners became all too clear when chairman Bernard Jenkin ambushed Heywood, accusing him of having failed to interpret the civil service code of conduct correctly by allowing the prime minister to pressurise him into condoning the involvement of special advisers in party political campaigning.
“Wrong, wrong, wrong,” yelled an incandescent Heywood. “The prime minister doesn’t pressurise me into anything. It’s me that pressurises him.”
“We’ve consulted a number of different legal opinions,” said Jenkin. “And they are all adamant you are unequivocally wrong.”
“I don’t have a copy of the code in front of me,” Heywood hissed.
“I do,” said Mulholland.
“Well, the guidelines aren’t clear enough,” Heywood gasped, scrabbling for his temporarily misplaced certainty.
“They are perfectly clear,” said Nigel Evans, suppressing a snigger. Everyone was enjoying this.
It got worse. While Heywood had been ducking and diving, his own spad had been rummaging through some files and placed the relevant page of the code under his nose. Heywood gave him a death stare. Here was one civil servant whose immediate horizon looked bleak.
“My conscience is clear,” insisted Heywood, not looking at the document. The clarity of conscience that comes of a lifetime in the shadows.
From QUENTIN LETTS 28th January 2015
How pink Sir Jeremy was, pink as cheap nougat, when questioned by MPs about the scandalously delayed Iraq inquiry. Apart from a few white splodges where his jaw muscles twitched, his cheeks were as pink as the lovehandles of an English shopgirl sunbathing at Torremolinos.
Sir Jeremy Heywood, that is. Ah, Sir Jeremy! He is Cabinet Secretary, Head of the Civil Service, the poohbahs’ poohbah, eminence grease, fixer sans pareil.
He is the man who, in this Coalition era, has been able to slide between Whitehall’s knackered cogs and give the democratic gearings a few cunning squirts of his own – all in the cause of smooth government, doncha know.
Sir Jeremy! Once he served Tony Blair as his bag carrier. Later he did a few shimmies round Morgan Stanley’s vaults in the City. Now he serves – the verb is a loose one – David Cameron at 10 Downing Street. Sir Jeremy is the modern Sir Humphrey.
He may have a silly haircut (really, a man of 53 should have outgrown such quiffs) and a modish northern-English accent but the Humphreyesque traits are unaltered: All praise be to the System.
Its navel gazers actually ended up spending more time asking him about ministerial special advisers – there has been a bijou scandal of them being forced to campaign at by-elections – than about the Chilcot inquiry. Sir Jeremy seemed twitchy about both matters.
Paul Flynn (Lab, Newport W) went at him with a certain despatch, his first question being: ‘To what extent have you been responsible for delays to the Chilcot inquiry?’ Sir Jeremy, turning the colour of an early-season radish, claimed that his involvement had been no greater than that laid out in a ‘protocol’ governing the inquiry.
Mr Flynn wondered if Parliament should simply grab hold of Sir John Chilcot’s draft report and publish it. A ghost wandered across Sir Jeremy’s gaze. ‘It would be a mistake to rush it,’ he said. A mistake to rush it? The ruddy thing is already five years late!
Repeatedly Sir Jeremy claimed that he had ‘a bias towards transparency’, a phrase that may well have earned hyena laughter around London SW1.
Cheryl Gillan (Con, Chesham & Amersham) wondered if anyone had kept an ‘audit trail’ of interventions made by outsiders in Sir John Chilcot’s work. Sir Jeremy, who looked appalled by this idea, was glad to say that he knew of no such audit trail.
His eyes moved warily, hooded behind his Zurich-dentist spectacles. He claimed to have no idea who was likely to be criticised by the inquiry’s report. He licked his lips, as children do when about to be sick in the back of your car.
The committee asked how he and his top mandarins were preparing for the general election result and any new coalition. ‘We want to make sure we understand the parties’ manifestos,’ said Sir Jeremy. Join the club, chum. He said he had invited his predecessor, Sir Gus O’Donnell, to give a recent talk to civil servants about how to deal with coalition talks. Oh no!
Then came a passage almost beyond parody when Sir Jeremy was asked about ‘leadership skills’ in the Civil Service.
It turned out he had just organised a ‘huge exercise’ in securing ‘the right skills, the right promotion systems’ (ah yes, promotion – yum yum) in Whitehall. ‘That’s what we’ve focused on,’ he said proudly.
Even before a Lib Dem MP could ask him about official jargon, Sir Jeremy was yodelling about ‘our talent matrix’ and ‘functional leaders’.
Soon we were on to ‘horizon-scanning’ and ‘stove-piping’. He was amazed that anyone should find such terms opaque. ‘The danger with all this horizon-scanning is that it stays in a very specialised cell but we’re getting ahead of the in-tray,’ he said with relish. ‘We’re only at the start of the process of strengthening our central capacity.’
Manuel from Fawlty Towers spoke clearer English.