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What Does Jeremy Think? by Suzanne Heywood review – how to manage a prime minister

Inside the civil service … a portrait and memoir of Jeremy Heywood, who was at the centre of British political life and had a knack for getting his way

The shaping and reshaping of the modern British state, told through the eyes, words and private thoughts of the ruler’s closest and most trusted counsellor. Dialogue-driven scenes, from formal committee or cabinet meetings to one-on-ones, planned or chance, punctuated by internal monologues. The ascent of the protagonist, from a relatively ordinary background, to the heights of power, through a combination of intellectual ability, keen political instincts and above all his understanding of what motivates others. And, finally, his premature death, while still at the peak of his abilities; in the eyes of the author at least, a tragedy for his country …

Suzanne Heywood’s account of the life of her late husband Jeremy, cabinet secretary and confidant of four prime ministers, doesn’t match Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell for length or imagination. But I don’t make the comparison of the Lords Heywood and Cromwell lightly. Not only did the two men occupy similar positions, but in many respects they shared an approach to governing, blending the personal and the political, their analytical intelligence with their understanding of human nature. And so this book should be read in a similar spirit to Mantel’s masterpieces – as a portrait of an exceptional man who was always at the centre of events.

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