On Friday 8 December 2017, the European Commission at last agreed that enough progress had been made for the UK to begin the next stage of the Brexit negotiations in January 2018. The joint report that they published to mark this step included the idea of an Irish ‘backstop’ – if the Irish border question couldn’t be solved through a trade relationship or technology, then the whole of the UK would need to maintain ‘full alignment’ with the rules of the EU single market and customs union. This backstop was something that Downing Street knew the Brexiteers would hate – but without it, Brussels would have refused to allow the UK to move to the next stage of the talks.
On the same day, after completing his third and final round of immunotherapy, Jeremy had another scan. We were due to get the results on Monday, a fact that hung in the air throughout that weekend even though we tried to ignore it. It had been a difficult week, Jeremy told me. He’d spent hours on the phone to Martin Fraser, secretary general to the Irish government, after the DUP had rejected the original version of the backstop, which had only included Northern Ireland. It had taken days of negotiation before they’d found an acceptable compromise – broadening it to include the whole of the UK – though the DUP still didn’t like it.
‘Difficult’ to Jeremy meant ‘horrendous’ in anyone else’s vocabulary. But I was more concerned about how tired Jeremy was. When he went upstairs to rest, I helped the children decorate our Christmas tree before continuing to ring doctors, narrowing down the list of global cancer trials to the ones focused on the mutation that by then I knew was causing Jeremy’s cancer.
After a weekend of not discussing Jeremy’s scan, we met outside the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital early on Monday evening to hear the results. We made our way up in a metal lift to an empty waiting room where I fiddled around getting water and operating the coffee machine.
When Dr Tom Newsom-Davis, Jeremy’s lean and serious chemo-therapist, came to collect us, he avoided meeting our eyes.
‘It’s not good news,’ he said when we reached his office.
I glanced across to see Dr Landau sitting on the far side of the room. For once David wasn’t smiling.
Tom indicated for us to sit down in two chairs, which were placed with their backs against the wall. Jeremy studied Tom and I slipped my hand into his.
‘How bad is it?’ Jeremy asked.
Tom grimaced. ‘There are many tiny tumours across your lungs, you have a tumour on your liver and one on your pelvis.’
‘Too many to count.’
‘How long do I have?’
Tom blinked. I felt nauseous. There was a long silence.
‘I don’t know. To be honest, I’m surprised you look so well. Weeks? Months? But it’s clear the immunotherapy isn’t working, and the chemotherapy wasn’t either. We need to start looking at trials.’ Tom turned to his computer and pulled up a document. ‘There’s a trial in Sutton that might work.’
Now I was focused. ‘Is that trial looking at the KRAS mutation? I thought the most promising trials were at UCL and MD Anderson.’ My voice sounded shrill, panic and emotion mixing with frustration.
Another pause followed my outburst. Dr Landau leaned forward. ‘I think you know more about this than we do, Suzanne,’ he said, his voice level. ‘It’s probably best if you go through the options with Tobias Arkenau who heads our research facility.’
We went down in the same lift and walked out of the same door, but everything had changed. For the first time Jeremy was talking about resigning. I told him we could both stop work. We could travel around the world. We could take the children with us and do whatever we wanted. I could hear my voice rising again so I stopped. But the offer was genuine. I didn’t know how much time we had left, but I knew it wasn’t long. If Jeremy wanted to do this, I would do it willingly.
But Jeremy frowned and shook his head. ‘Jonny is doing his GCSEs this year and I can’t leave the Prime Minister in the lurch over Brexit.’
Extract from What Does Jeremy Think?: Jeremy Heywood and the Making of Modern Britain, by Suzanne Heywood, £25, published by William Collins on Thursday.