UK’s top civil servant quits in victory for Cummings
Briefings against Sedwill had sought to blame him for coronavirus failings
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’
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.
Mark Sedwill greets Boris Johnson on his first day as prime minister, watched by Dominic Cummings
▼ The UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, will take over as national security adviser from Mark Sedwill