Johnson under attack over choice of political appointee for security role
Labour has criticised what it called the government’s “highly unusual” decision to replace Sir Mark Sedwill as national security adviser with a political appointee who has little direct experience of the role, before a parliamentary question on the issue.
After a series of former top officials condemned Sedwill’s departure as a sign the government was undermining the impartiality of the civil service, Labour secured an urgent question on the new national security adviser.
Sedwill holds that role, as well as being cabinet secretary, the most senior post in the civil service, but will stand down from both jobs during the summer following weeks of briefings targeting him.
The search for a new cabinet secretary will begin next month. But Boris Johnson has already said the new national security adviser will be David Frost, currently the government’s chief Brexit negotiator with the EU.
While he was formerly a longserving diplomat, Frost has little direct experience of security matters. Also, unlike Sedwill and all other national security advisers since the role was created in 2010, Frost is not a civil servant but a political appointee.
Gus O’Donnell, former cabinet secretary, warned yesterday that political appointees were more likely to be “yes men”, telling the BBC: “I’m worried about the appointment of David Frost as national security adviser as I’m not sure how putting a special adviser in that role works.”
Frost will be made a peer. Downing Street was unable to say yesterday whether he would take the Conservative whip or speak in the Lords.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, has secured an urgent question in the Commons today about Frost’s appointment.
He said: “We are in the midst of an unprecedented international crisis. It is highly unusual for the government to have proceeded in this manner, seeming to rush through a political appointment to a critically important role that needs to provide impartial expert advice.
“There are a number of vital questions that must be answered, such as what criteria were used to select a candidate, and what process was followed.”
Downing Street rejected the charge that Sedwill had been forced out after two years in the twin jobs by Johnson and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. Johnson’s spokesman denied Frost had been selected mainly because he would be loyal to the PM. “No, absolutely not,” he said.
Asked about Frost’s political status, the spokesman likened the choice to those made in places such as the US: “It is not unusual in other countries: ambassadors serve as national security advisers and ambassadors can be political appointees. David Frost has the status of an ambassador.”
On the timing of Sedwill’s departure, he said the response to coronavirus was now reaching the phase of “domestic and global recovery and
‘It is highly unusual for the government to proceed in this way’ Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow home secretary
renewal”, and that Johnson needed a cabinet secretary and national security adviser “who can see him through the rest of this parliament”.
But writing in the Guardian, Bob Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, said the practice of governments briefing against officials was “cowardly, unfair and undermining”.
“Ultimately everyone knows where such malicious briefings come from and it is within the prime minister’s powers to stop them,” Kerslake wrote.
Speaking during a visit to a school in London, Johnson sought to distance himself from the briefing against Sedwill, saying: “There is an awful lot of stuff that comes out in the papers to which I wouldn’t automatically attach the utmost credence.”
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, told Sky it was “obvious” Johnson wanted to oust Sedwill: “Why you do so in the middle of a pandemic and a crisis, instead of actually focusing on the crisis, is a question the prime minister needs to answer.”
There was also some Conservative disquiet. The senior Tory backbencher George Freeman tweeted that it was “a huge loss to lose Mark Sedwill who is an outstanding public servant & such a highly experienced government official in midst of this crisis”.
Frost will take up the new role in late August, meaning there is a new effective deadline for Brexit talks with the EU, which he leads, to have concluded by then or soon afterwards. Johnson’s spokesman said the UK had already been clear the talks “need to be concluded sooner rather than later”.
Recruitment for the new permanent secretary will start in early July, with applications to be invited from existing and former permanent secretaries.
Mark Sedwill in 2010. Keir Starmer said it was ‘obvious’ he was forced out