May turns on Gove over choice of adviser ‘with no expertise’
Theresa May has launched a forthright attack upon Boris Johnson’s government for the appointment of the chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, as the UK’s national security adviser.
The former prime minister accused Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, of promoting someone “with no proven expertise” to a crucial role at the heart of the UK’s safety.
Her attack follows an outcry from security officials and former senior civil servants at the decision to hand the job to Frost, who is expected to prioritise his role negotiating the UK’s deal with the European Union while learning his new job.
While he was formerly a long-serving diplomat, Frost, known as “Frosty” among Johnson’s closest aides, has little direct experience of security matters. Unlike other national security advisers since the role was created in 2010, Frost is not a civil servant but a political appointee.
Frost will receive a peerage and will replace Sir Mark Sedwill, who will also step down from his roles as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service as part of a Whitehall shake-up announced on Sunday.
May, who served on the national security council for nine years as home secretary and then prime minister, made her comments in the House of Commons as Gove responded to an urgent question about Frost’s role.
She paid tribute to Sedwill, saying she had listened to expert independent advice from national security advisers for nine years and noted that Gove had made a recent speech saying the government should be able to promote experts to key roles.
“Why then is the new national security adviser a political appointee with no proven expertise in national security?” she said.
Gove said: “We have had previous national security advisers, all of them excellent, not all of them necessarily were people who were steeped in the security world. Some of them were distinguished diplomats in their own right. David Frost is a distinguished diplomat in his own right.”
As he spoke, May grimaced and shook her head.
Later, the former Labour minister Angela Eagle asked Gove to return to May’s question, saying he had failed to answer it. “What are his specific qualifications and expertise and why on earth was he considered for a second for this role?” she said.
Gove replied: “The broader point is that David Frost is involved in one of the most complex diplomatic negotiations ever conducted and a diplomatic negotiation that relates specifically to defence and security cooperation as well as tariffs and trade.
“He has been a civil servant for decades and it is the case that Mark Lyall Grant and Kim Darroch, who were national security advisers, were not people who were steeped in the world of intelligence and security.”
It is the first time that May has openly criticised Johnson’s administration since she was forced from office last summer. She appointed Sedwill national security adviser in 2017.
Frost, 55, will be the secretary of the 30-strong national security council, which discusses strategy. Its meetings, chaired by the prime minister, include the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and the UK’s most senior military officers.
Joanna Cherry, the SNP’s home affairs spokeswoman, said Sedwill has been forced out because he said last year that Brexit could be a disaster. “So this is all about the revenge of the Vote Leave campaign whose so-called mastermind [Dominic Cummings] is now pulling the strings of this government,” she said.
Although Frost will occupy what was once a neutral role, a Tory minister, Lord True, told the House of Lords: “It is my understanding that he may be introduced as a Conservative peer but I can’t confirm that.”
Sedwill, the UK’s most senior civil servant, will step down in September. Johnson has discussed the possibility he could be officially nominated to become Nato’s next secretary general.
▲ David Frost, left, with Tim Barrow, Britain’s ambassador to the EU