Downed by ‘Darth Vader’, May’s Cabinet hardman
On a wall in Sir Mark Sedwill’s office in Whitehall is a striking black and white framed photograph of a lifeboat battling stormy waters.
On a shelf beneath is a Christmas card from members of the Commons home affairs select committee. It depicts Sedwill, the softly-spoken Cabinet Secretary, as Darth Vader, the ruthless Jedi in Star Wars who is lured to the ‘Dark Side’.
The juxtaposition of the two is telling: the first revealing how our top mandarin sees his job – confronting the daily political tempest. The second is symbolic of how others see the man who has amassed more power than any other civil servant in modern political history. Gavin Williamson would no doubt count himself with the latter given that Sir Mark was the architect of his downfall.
It was Sedwill – said to have been ‘incandescent’ with rage at the leak to a newspaper after a national Security Council meeting to discuss Britain’s 5G network and the involvement of Chinese tech giant Huawei – who oversaw the inquiry that led to Williamson’s humiliation. The event cemented Sir Mark’s position as Mrs May’s steely ‘enforcer’. He is clever, hard working and steeped in the art of Whitehall intrigue – yet it all could have been so different.
Brought up in Bourne, Lincolnshire, Sedwill, now 54, attended St Andrews University and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he gained a masters in economics.
But writing about his old college, he confessed: ‘After graduation and some travel... it almost prompted me to drop out and spend the rest of my life on a beach.’ In reality, he was always on the fast-track to success.
He joined the diplomatic service, serving in Iraq as a Un weapons inspector. His experience perfectly placed him to become private secretary to Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, between 2000-2002, in the run-up to the second Iraq war. Eight years later and Sir Mark, who is married with a daughter, was nato’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul.
In one of the stranger moments of his career, he found himself stranded in Pakistan in 2004 after a sudden snowfall. But it wasn’t all bad. Some 12,000 feet up the Himalayas another Briton appeared. ‘Michael Palin had turned up to film... He didn’t want us in it, though – it didn’t feel very authentic to feature a British diplomat,’ he said.
Senior roles in the Foreign Office followed before he joined the Home Office as permanent secretary when Theresa May was home secretary. He has had her back ever since. When Sir Jeremy Heywood died last year,
there was no doubt who would replace him as Cabinet Secretary. In November Sedwill was elevated to this position and head of the civil service – as well as national security adviser. He is the first civil servant to hold all three roles at once and he wields the power ruthlessly – as Gavin Williamson discovered.
Last year in a Channel 4 documentary about the new US embassy, there is a revealing vignette of the two men. Williamson hesitantly invites himself round for coffee with the US ambassador. Moments later Sedwill tells the ambassador in no-nonsense terms about plans for a state visit for President Trump.
One observer said: ‘The power seemed vested in the diplomat not the politician.’ This week brought us proof of that.