UK’s top civil ser­vant quits in vic­tory for Cum­mings

Brief­ings against Sed­will had sought to blame him for coro­n­avirus failings

The Guardian - - Front Page - Ra­jeev Syal

Mark Sed­will, Bri­tain’s most se­nior civil ser­vant, has an­nounced he will stand down in Septem­ber, prompt­ing anger from for­mer col­leagues who say he has been un­fairly smeared by Boris John­son’s aides over the gov­ern­ment’s coro­n­avirus failings and for sup­pos­edly block­ing White­hall re­forms.

Fol­low­ing weeks of tense ne­go­ti­a­tions over his job, Sed­will said in a letter to the prime min­is­ter that he would stand down as cabi­net sec­re­tary and head of the civil ser­vice. His other role, as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, will be taken by John­son’s chief Brexit ad­viser, David Frost.

His de­par­ture will be seen as a vic­tory for Do­minic Cum­mings, John­son’s most se­nior aide, who has had a tense re­la­tion­ship with Sed­will, and for Michael Gove, the cabi­net min­is­ter push­ing through a re­struc­tur­ing of gov­ern­ment de­part­ments.

Un­named Down­ing Street sources told news­pa­pers in March that Sed­will had failed to get a grip on the coro­n­avirus cri­sis. An­other source was quoted as say­ing that he had fallen out with John­son and his aides over the re­sponse to the virus. In April, Cabi­net Of­fice in­sid­ers told the Guardian that the claims were “ab­so­lute crap”.

As cabi­net sec­re­tary, he was sup­posed to co­or­di­nate the work of per­ma­nent sec­re­taries grap­pling with lock­down, pro­tec­tive equip­ment, food sup­plies, prison re­leases and test­ing.

The devel­op­ment has been met with anger from for­mer man­darins and comes weeks after other se­nior civil ser­vants ei­ther left their posts or were sched­uled to depart fol­low­ing the Tories’ elec­tion vic­tory in De­cem­ber.

Bob Ker­slake, the for­mer head of the civil ser­vice, said Sed­will’s de­par­ture fol­lowed un­fair hos­tile brief­ings that at­tempted to blame civil ser­vants for mis­takes over coro­n­avirus.

“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,” Lord Ker­slake told the Guardian. “I fear from some of the press briefing that had ob­vi­ously gone on 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.”

Dave Pen­man, head of the se­nior civil ser­vants’ union, the FDA, said: “No 10 – or those around it – has sought to un­der­mine Sir Mark and the lead­er­ship of the civil ser­vice, with a se­ries of anony­mous brief­ings against him over months.

‘I fear the civil ser­vice is be­ing made the fall guy for mis­takes made in the han­dling of the pan­demic’

Bob Ker­slake

For­mer civil ser­vice chief

“Not only is it a self-de­feat­ing and cor­ro­sive tac­tic, it’s also a cow­ardly one, safe in the knowl­edge that those who are briefed against are un­able to pub­licly re­spond.”

Fiona McLeod Hill, Theresa May’s for­mer joint chief of staff, said: “This is a very sad day for the British gov­ern­ment. I worked with Sir Mark closely for a num­ber of years. He is ex­cep­tional. He also hap­pens to be a very de­cent per­son. I re­mem­ber how much he looked out for my for­mer part­ner, Sir Charles Farr, who sadly passed away last year. I will al­ways be grate­ful to him for that.”

The ap­point­ment of Frost will also cause con­tro­versy, es­pe­cially among se­cu­rity of­fi­cials who may well ques­tion why a spe­cial ad­viser with no ex­pe­ri­ence of na­tional se­cu­rity has been ap­pointed to the cru­cial role usu­ally re­served for ex­pe­ri­enced hands with knowl­edge of MI6 and MI5.

Sed­will’s exit from No 10 is likely to be part of a wider shake-up of top jobs across the civil ser­vice over­seen by Cum­mings and Gove. Philip Rut­nam, the for­mer per­ma­nent sec­re­tary at the Home Of­fice, is su­ing for un­fair dis­missal after quit­ting in Fe­bru­ary while Si­mon Mc­Don­ald, per­ma­nent sec­re­tary at the For­eign Of­fice, is leav­ing in Septem­ber fol­low­ing its merger with the Depart­ment for In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment.

After he leaves gov­ern­ment ser­vice in Septem­ber, Sed­will will be made a peer and will chair a panel on global eco­nomic se­cu­rity when the UK as­sumes the pres­i­dency of the G7 eco­nomic group of na­tions.

In an ex­change of let­ters, Sed­will said he had served John­son and his pre­de­ces­sor, May, in “ex­tra­or­di­nary times”.

“Two years ago, when my pre­de­ces­sor fell ill, your pre­de­ces­sor asked me to step in as cabi­net sec­re­tary, and you asked me to con­tinue to sup­port you through Brexit and the elec­tion pe­riod.

“It was ob­vi­ously right to stay on for the acute phase of the Covid-19 cri­sis. As you are set­ting out this week, the gov­ern­ment’s fo­cus is now shift­ing to do­mes­tic and global re­cov­ery and re­newal,” he wrote.

John­son replied that Sed­will had made a “mas­sive con­tri­bu­tion” to pub­lic life over the past 30 years and had been a source of “shrewd ad­vice”.

“You have done it all in White­hall: from Afghanista­n to the mod­erni­sa­tion of the civil ser­vice; from im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy to Brexit and de­feat­ing coro­n­avirus,” he wrote.

The cabi­net sec­re­tary since 2018 and na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser since 2017, Sed­will, 55, has told friends that he has been an­gered by neg­a­tive brief­ings over many months.

Sed­will, who at­tended cabi­net and Co­bra emer­gency meet­ings, fell ill with Covid-19 soon after John­son, Chris Whitty, Eng­land’s chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer, and Matt Han­cock, the health sec­re­tary. He in­formed the cabi­net when the prime min­is­ter was moved to an in­ten­sive-care unit.

White­hall of­fi­cials said sev­eral can­di­dates were be­ing con­sid­ered to re­place him, among them Tim Bar­row, the UK’s am­bas­sador to the EU.

Oc­ca­sion­ally abrupt, Sed­will made en­e­mies in gov­ern­ment. The ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary, Gavin Wil­liamson, was sacked from his pre­vi­ous job as de­fence sec­re­tary after Sed­will led an in­quiry into a leak from the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and con­cluded that Wil­liamson was the source.

Sed­will was born and grew up in Lin­colnshire, at­tend­ing Bourne gram­mar school. He stud­ied in­ter­na­tional eco­nom­ics at St An­drews Univer­sity and has a mas­ter’s in eco­nom­ics from Ox­ford. He joined the For­eign Of­fice in 1989 and had post­ings in Afghanista­n, Egypt, Iraq and Pak­istan.

Gove set out his man­i­festo for re­form­ing the civil ser­vice on Satur­day in a lec­ture with the ti­tle The Priv­i­lege of Pub­lic Ser­vice. He claimed the “metropoli­tan” out­look of de­ci­sion-mak­ers had con­trib­uted to the gov­ern­ment be­com­ing “es­tranged” from the peo­ple.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: AN­DREW PARSONS/I-IM­AGES

Mark Sed­will greets Boris John­son on his first day as prime min­is­ter, watched by Do­minic Cum­mings

PHO­TO­GRAPH: FRAN­COIS LENOIR/REUTERS

▼ The UK’s chief Brexit ne­go­tia­tor, David Frost, will take over as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser from Mark Sed­will

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