UK Cabinet secretary ousted as fears grow over politicisation of the civil service

By on 29/06/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
There have been a series of anonymous briefings to the press against Sir Mark Sedwill. (Image courtesy: UK Civil Service/flickr).

Sir Mark Sedwill, who has served as Cabinet secretary and head of the UK civil service since 2018, and national security adviser (NSA) since 2017, is to stand down in September as part of a major Whitehall shake-up orchestrated by the PM’s chief aide Dominic Cummings and minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove.

The news comes after the publication of a series of anonymous briefings to the press against Sedwill, including accusations that he had failed to get a grip on the coronavirus crisis. The circumstances of his departure and the government’s plans for the NSA role have drawn criticism from former senior civil servants and union leaders, who have accused the government of weakening accountability and civil service impartiality.  

Under the UK’s principle of merit-based appointment, civil servants are expected to keep their political views entirely separate from their working lives – but on Sunday the Telegraph reported that prime minister Boris Johnson is looking for a Brexiteer to replace Sedwill. Meanwhile, the government announced that the role of NSA – held by civil servants since its creation in 2010 – will go to David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit adviser. Frost’s new status as political appointee given a peerage but no ministerial role raises questions over his accountability: it is not clear how or whether he’ll be accountable to Parliament through any of the systems covering ministers, special advisers and civil servants.

Former national security adviser Peter Ricketts said Frost’s appointment “completely changes the nature of the role” as it will no longer be held by a “politically-neutral civil servant giving dispassionate advice”. He also expressed concern that as far as he is aware, Frost has no experience “of the wider security and defence agenda”.

Former civil service chiefs voice concern  

Former leaders warned that the government appears to be attempting to pin the blame for the UK’s high COVID-19 infection and death rates on civil service leaders. Ricketts told LBC radio that “this may be the beginning of a blame game. People are turning on senior civil servants to make examples of them. Actually, I think the civil service has reacted very well to what was an extraordinary unprecedented crisis. The real failure in my view has been political leadership.”

Lord Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, said the “recent hostile briefing against Sir Mark has been completely unacceptable and undermined a key role in government at a time of great national crisis”.

“I fear… that the civil service is being made the fall guy for mistakes made in the handling of the pandemic. This is grossly unfair. We urgently need an independent inquiry to look at the lessons that can be learnt,” he added.

Meanwhile, former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell described Sedwill’s departure as “very sad”. Referring to his successor’s relations with Johnson’s team, O’Donnell told the BBC: “They are probably quite a difficult team to work [with]. I wonder about how keen people will be to come next. It would be hard at the best of times, and these are not the best of times.”

‘Self-defeating and corrosive tactic’

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, described Sedwill as “one of the outstanding public servants of his generation”. In a statement, he said that “whatever emerges as fact from the series of briefings that have sought to undermine Sir Mark’s position, this government will emerge weaker as a result”.

The briefings, he said, were a “self-defeating and corrosive tactic”, and a “cowardly one” given that Sedwill is unable to publicly respond.

Number 10 had “won this particular round of power play”, he continued ­– but running government and delivering public services “requires the talent and enthusiasm of thousands of leaders and hundreds of thousands of committed public servants, all of whom look to ministers, and ultimately the prime minister, for leadership and inspiration.

“No CEO or chair of a private company would act in this way and expect their organisation to thrive. A government that so publicly covets the best of the private sector on delivery could do with learning exactly what good leadership looks like: it certainly isn’t this.”

No replacement has been announced for Sedwill’s roles as Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, though in Prospect magazine Jill Rutter – a former civil servant and visiting professor at King’s College London – cited reports that the competition “will be confined to past and present permanent secretaries, in what is being reported as a deal with the Civil Service Commission, which is supposed to maintain the impartiality of the civil service. There is, though, simultaneous briefing that the PM wants a top mandarin with belief in the Brexit cause ­– a question that is absolutely off limits in any civil service interview.”

Relationship soured over reform?

After Johnson took office following last summer’s general election, Sedwill – who was appointed Cabinet secretary under Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May – was tipped to replace then-British ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch. According to The Telegraph, he stayed on as Cabinet secretary after convincing Johnson’s inner circle that he could help them deliver civil service reform. Since then relations appear to have soured, with reports circulating that Sedwill had supposedly blocked proposed reforms.

On Saturday, in a speech titled ‘The privilege of the civil service’, Michael Gove became the first minister to publicly address the long-mooted reforms. Gove, who first brought Cummings into government as his special adviser at the education department, said the “metropolitan” outlook of decision-makers had contributed to government becoming “estranged” from the people, and listed a number of reforms.

These included relocating government decision-makers to various parts of the country; reforming recruitment and training to boost mathematical proficiency so that policy and projects could be better evaluated; and ensuring departments and agencies share more data.

He also said civil servants should be incentivised to build their expertise in certain areas rather than to progress their careers by moving departments, and that innovation and experimentation should be encouraged.

However, critics pointed out how members of Johnson’s Cabinet have repeatedly criticised evidence-based civil service assessments and projections whose conclusions don’t match their views on Brexit, and argued that Gove’s proposals would further centralise power and weaken accountability.

Andrew Sentance, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, said Gove’s speech “seems to be a platform for putting the boot into the civil service, making politically motivated changes to government departments and even more centralisation of power… this is not constructive reform.”

‘A hard rain is going to fall’

Recent media reports hinted at Sedwill’s removal. Last week, it emerged that Cummings told a meeting of political aides that “a hard rain is going to fall” on the civil service, while the appointment a few weeks ago of Simon Case to the post of Number 10 permanent secretary – a role that had lain vacant for eight years – was seen as a weakening of Sedwill’s role.

Sedwill joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1989, serving in Egypt, Iraq, Cyprus and Pakistan. He later became ambassador to Afghanistan before serving as NATO’s senior civilian representative in the country, and was the FCO’s political director in 2012-13.

Prior to being appointed national security adviser under Theresa May in April 2017 and Cabinet secretary in 2018, Sedwill spent four years as Home Office permanent secretary.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. F Wells says:

    “You have also spoken with a unique authority – unusual in a cabinet secretary – on international affairs and national security;…”

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