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Three problems with Sir Jeremy Heywood’s ‘plebgate’ evidence

10 January 2013

Sir Jeremy Heywood’s evidence to MPs on the Andrew Mitchell row didn’t go down very well at all this morning. Though a powerful man, the Cabinet Secretary is not well-liked by MPs, and before he appeared some had already named him as a central figure in the fiasco that led to the chief whip resigning. The Public Administration Select Committee hearing did little to improve this perception. Here are the main problems with his evidence:

1. Heywood’s investigation was limited.

The Cabinet Secretary said he was asked to conduct a ‘very specific review’ of emails about Mitchell’s behaviour from a man claiming to be a constituent of the deputy chief whip to see whether they should change the Prime Minister’s view of whether Mitchell should remain in position. He explained that he talked to Mitchell, examined Number 10 and Foreign Office CCTV footage and tried unsuccessfully to meet the person who sent the email. The deputy chief whip John Randall met the constituent, and asked whether he had any links with the police or the media, which he denied.

2. He ignored the possibility of a ‘giant conspiracy’.

Sir Jeremy’s report ‘made clear that there were some inaccuracies and inconsistencies’ in the email account of the incident, but he did not follow up his suspicions with the police:

‘We accepted there were unanswered questions including the possibility of a gigantic conspiracy, or a small conspiracy, but we decided on balance to leave things as they were.’


Alun Cairns’ interrogations were particularly useful on this, and you can listen to the exchange here, from 09:54 onwards.

Cairns has been commenting on the committee on the Daily Politics, and he said:

‘What surprised me was that the evidence, as he analysed the evidence, he looked at it in isolation rather than bringing it together. So there was clearly an inconsistency from the email to the police log to the CCTV and he hadn’t brought them all together. And if he brought them all together, that clearly showed significant questions or serious questions that probably should have brought to the police or the IPCC’s [Independent Police Complaints Commission] attention.

‘I think he should have come to the conclusion that further investigation was necessary. If that was beyond his remit, and recommended to the Prime Minister ‘I think we need to look further at that’, and he suggested that he didn’t do so.’

Heywood’s explanation was the classic civil servant I’m-just-doing-my-job line that his remit was simply to investigate the emails for the Prime Minister, and that it would not have been appropriate for a Cabinet Secretary to examine the veracity of the police logs.

3. He did not probe the most damaging claim about the exchanges: the word ‘pleb’.

Although it was clear that the most damaging part of the allegations was not such much the swearing but the use of the word ‘pleb’, Heywood told the committee ‘I didn’t look at the question of whether the word ‘pleb’ was used’. There was a record held by Number 10 of a conversation with a police officer immediately after the incident, but Heywood said ‘I can’t remember specifically the word’. This is the exchange with Bernard Jenkin at the very end of the committee hearing:

Jenkin: Can I just clarify one matter?
Heywood: Yes.
Jenkin: Did we hear you correctly when you said that the principal private secretary who spoke to the police sergeant in question did not take a note of that conversation?
Jenkin: He did take a note, he did take a note. I think the question was whether I read that as part of my review. I’ve seen, I have read it, there is a note, and I have read it subsequently, but it wasn’t relevant to my review of the emails.

Alun Cairns picked this up a few minutes later:

Cairns: Just, Sir Jeremy, for clarification, you said to the committee and I just want to make sure that it’s been heard properly, to be honest, I didn’t look at whether the word pleb was used. Is that right or not?
Heywood: It is correct that I didn’t look at that because that’s an issue which you could not establish from silent CCTV footage.
Cairns: But isn’t that fundamentally what the Prime Minister needed to know?
Heywood: Well, there were two stages here, there was the first stage, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, when the police had one version of the events and Andrew Mitchell had another…
Jenkin: But the principal private secretary’s note used the word pleb?
Heywood: I can’t recall that, to be honest.
Jenkin: So there’s a record in Number 10 of a conversation with a police officer immediately after the incident that goes absolutely to the heart of the controversy and you cannot remember whether the word pleb is in that note.
Heywood: I can’t remember whether it specifically…
Jenkin: Because it wasn’t in your remit?
Heywood: No, it wasn’t in my remit, no. Absolutely not in my remit. So there was the issue about whether the word pleb had been used, and the police took one version of events and Andrew Mitchell has always maintained he never used that word and the Prime Minister takes that.
Jenkin: Well, we suspect there will be some very big lessons to learn in this instance, Sir Jeremy.

The transcript of these exchanges misses the wonderful twinkling look of disapproval and disbelief in Jenkin’s eyes as he says slightly sardonically ‘because it wasn’t in your remit?’, followed by a very uncomfortable Heywood glancing uncomfortably from side to side as he says that looking for the word ‘pleb’ was ‘absolutely not in my remit’. Remember that Jenkin was one of the senior Conservatives most critical of colleagues’ behaviour at the 1922 committee meeting in the week of Mitchell’s resignation: he will have taken a dim view of a failure in Number 10 to try to calm matters when the row first flared up.

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  • ButcombeMan

    Heywood was amazingly unimpressive for a “top civil servant”, plainly part of the problem for Cameron around the handling of the Plebgate affair BUT, he was asked to do a job beyond his skill set. That, is down to the PM.

  • McRobbie

    Amazing to read there is a view this heywood is a “powerful” man!! He clearly isn’t, he may be in a powerful position but clearly has no control over the pedal. I find it unbelievable that a senior civil servant has not sufficient wit to investigate such a serious matter and then use a defence of “it wasn’t in my remit”…. then again with self serving civil service jobsworths abounding it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Whenever you find browns inside boys you find ineptness… that was always his cunning plan… destroy the system from the inside by putting mines in every crevice of public services.

  • HooksLaw

    Hopefully the note taken would have been freer of typos than this blogpost. We see Jenkins used where Heywood is meant. Its a good illustration of where some semblance of deeper enquiry is needed by the reader.

  • Faceless Bureaucrat

    Before he ended-up as Cabinet Secretary, Heywood was seen as rather ‘second division’ within the Civil Service. The only reason that he rose to prominence under Blair/Brown was because of his potential to be a useful idiot in the future. Seems they were right about that at least…

    • HooksLaw

      Heywood’s role as Cabinet Secretary is not as wide ranging as his predecessor O’Donnell’s. He is not head of the civil service, that is Sir Bob Kerslake.

      It may not have been Heywood’s job to investigate the police but he might have suggested an inquiry based on his researches.

  • Lily Alldub
    • Noa

      “…There was more elastic in Heywood’s manner than in the late Sir Cyril Smith’s underpants…” Bravo!

  • Colonel Mustard

    The whole thing smells more than a little.

  • Reconstruct

    Mr Heywood rose to prominence under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. That is in no way to impugn his party political impartiality. Merely to record that he prospered under rottenness.

    • Noa

      Atypically, he prefers to sit on stones rather than look under them.

    • telemachus

      Or to say he started out with a moral compass and is now charged with propping up a government of cheats and Liars
      It started in just a few days with Laws and continued with Huhne and Fox
      Mitchell’s attitudinal approach to his colleagues sealed his fate

      • HooksLaw

        What a load of toss.


          Isabel, as web editor, and having said that trolls would be removed from this site can you explain why the most notorious troll here, who has caused great damage is still allowed to post representing himself or a community of Labour supporters or employees?

      • Andy

        Gordon the moron Brown has, nor ever had, any sort of moral compass. Nor had Tony Blair any moral compass – he who corrupted the institutions of the State he was supposed to serve. Lets not mention the disgusting Alistair Campbell nor McBride. Oh and what of Peter Mandelson ? He of the fraudulent mortgage application ? And what of the massed ranks of Labour MPs ? MacShane for example, a liar and a thief who should be prosecuted. One could go on and on but why bother.

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