When Jeremy Heywood, Britain’s most senior and admired civil servant, announced his retirement on health grounds on 24 October, his successor was immediately known. There would be no recruitment process – merely a coronation for Mark Sedwill.
Theresa May’s national security adviser was already deputising for Heywood, 56, who had been on leave since June to undergo treatment for cancer. Sedwill was the Prime Minister’s first and only choice to permanently replace the cabinet secretary.
As May’s most trusted civil service lieutenant, Sedwill – a 54-year-old career diplomat – has been at her side throughout her reign at the Home Office and Downing Street. But his new post leaves youthful ambitions unfulfilled. After graduating from university, Sedwill became a scuba-diving instructor, an experience which, he later said, “almost prompted me to drop out and spend my life on a beach”. If life as the master of a Whitehall paralysed by Brexit has an opposite, that might well be it.
Three decades later, the new cabinet secretary is still scuba-diving (as his Who’s Who entry confirms) – and has been entrusted with the job of guiding a weak government through some perilous political waters.
Mark Philip Sedwill was born in Ealing in 1964, and is married with a daughter. After growing up in rural Lincolnshire, where he was head boy at Bourne Grammar School, he attended the University of St Andrews (where he studied science) before achieving a Master’s in economics at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.
Then, by way of the beach, came the Diplomatic Service. Since joining the Foreign Office in 1989, Sedwill has been intimately involved with the most significant policy decisions in recent memory: serving in Egypt, Pakistan, Cyprus, and as private secretary to Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw during the Iraq War. After leading the UK Border Agency, in 2009 he became ambassador to Afghanistan, before taking on responsibility for its administration as Nato’s senior civilian representative in 2010.
Sedwill returned to Whitehall in 2013 as permanent secretary at May’s Home Office. “Like all nomads,” he has said of his itinerant career in the foreign service, “I yearn for points of continuity.” He proved so reliable an ally to May that before his appointment as cabinet secretary, he was tipped as a candidate for the most trying diplomatic job of all: British ambassador to Donald Trump’s America.
Despite his close acquaintance with the inner workings of government, Sedwill is an outsider by Whitehall’s standards. He is the first cabinet secretary since Maurice Hankey – the inaugural post-holder in 1916 – not to have worked at the Treasury (“Learning from the best also taught me that I was never going to be a world-class economist,” Sedwill has joked of his time at Oxford).
Some in government believe Treasury alumni too often fall victim to short-termist thinking, and hope Sedwill will take a more strategic approach. Others have derided him as a “securocrat”.
Winning over the many sceptics who were quick to express unease at his appointment is the most immediate of the challenges he will face. Another will be to continue what the keen golfer and windsurfer has described as his “ruthless” maintenance of a work-life balance.
Heywood’s influence within government was often characterised as unprecedented. But Sedwill’s could be even greater. May has few true allies and her new cabinet secretary has, for now, also retained his post as national security adviser.
Several leading Conservatives have complained the arrangement is untenable, including George Osborne. “Combining the roles of cabinet secretary and national security adviser needlessly undermines a successful constitutional innovation of the coalition,” the former chancellor said. “I’m sure there will be a U-turn by No 10, but why make the mistake in the first place?”
As civil servants face increasing political attacks, Sedwill must also act as a human shield for his colleagues. Earlier this month he wrote to the Times to defend the honour of Olly Robbins, May’s senior Europe adviser and the bête noire of Conservative Brexiteers.
“Civil servants have always trusted that our fellow citizens, whatever their views, know we are doing our duty to implement the decisions of the governments they elect,” Sedwill wrote.
One day, the new cabinet secretary could well have to perform this role for Jeremy Corbyn – who has spent almost all of Sedwill’s working life opposing the foreign policy he helped deliver.
Political tensions such as these – as well as Brexit – threaten to make Sedwill’s job more difficult than Heywood’s ever was. Those who have worked with Sedwill praise his tenacity and good humour. Governing Brexit Britain will require superhuman quantities of both.
This article appears in the 31 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow