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29 June 2020

Mark Sedwill’s ousting is a dangerous power grab by Boris Johnson

Downing Street is destroying the civil service’s precious neutrality in pursuit of a destructive “revolution”.

By Martin Fletcher

Mark Sedwill survived Afghanistan’s Taliban as Britain’s ambassador in Kabul, but he has failed to survive Britain’s domestic Taliban led by Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief aide. 

The government’s in-house newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, is entirely candid about the reason for Sedwill’s dismissal as cabinet secretary and national security adviser. “PM wants Brexiteer to head the Civil Service”, its front-page headline proclaims this morning.

Thus, what Peter Ricketts, a former national security adviser and permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, decries as the “US-style politicisation of top jobs” continues.

Sedwill joins Simon McDonald at the Foreign Office, and Philip Rutnam at the Home Office, as permanent secretaries who have been forced out of their jobs since February. As these decent, capable and honourable public servants are removed, their polar opposites remain in post. Cummings has himself survived despite his egregious violation of the coronavirus lockdown rules he helped impose on the nation. 

So has Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, despite his malodorous approval of a dubious development project proposed by the former pornographer and Tory financier Richard Desmond. This Conservative government’s idea of “levelling up” is, it seems, to deprive one of the UK’s poorest boroughs (Tower Hamlets) of £45m by rushing to approve Desmond’s project before the imposition of a new community infrastructure levy.

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Those who know Sedwill describe him as extremely able, but concede that the former spook turned diplomat was not an ideal fit for the job of cabinet secretary, which requires an intimate knowledge of the Whitehall labyrinth. They recognise he might have been stretched too thin by serving simultaneously as national security adviser. They also acknowledge that he would inevitably have been seen by Johnson and Cummings as Theresa May’s man, having served four years as her permanent secretary at the Home Office before joining her in No 10 and assisting her quest for a “soft Brexit”.

Yet that is no excuse for the shameful way in which Downing Street sources undermined him through anonymous briefings to friendly newspapers, notably that he had failed to get a grip on the coronavirus crisis. Dave Penman, head of the FDA, the senior civil servants’ union, rightly described those briefings as “cowardly” and “corrosive”. 

Nor will it excuse any future Downing Street effort to make Sedwill a scapegoat for Johnson’s disastrously complacent response to Covid-19. As Bob Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, has warned: “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.”

Downing Street’s timing is also baffling. To remove the country’s top civil servant in the midst of the UK’s gravest public health and economic crisis in living memory seems reckless, to say the least. So does the promotion of David Frost to be national security adviser – a role for which the enthusiastic Brexiteer appears eminently unqualified – at the very moment that he is supposed to be leading Britain’s critical negotiation of a new relationship with the EU.

In the Ditchley Annual Lecture at the weekend Michael Gove, the silver-tongued Cabinet Office minister, spoke of how “Westminster and Whitehall can become a looking-glass world. Government departments recruit in their own image, are influenced by the think tanks and lobbyists who breathe the same London air and are socially rooted in assumptions which are inescapably metropolitan”. He talked of the need for the government to be “closer to the 52 per cent who voted Leave, and more understanding of why”.

Let us pass over the fact that Gove, Johnson, Cummings and their self-styled fellow populists are themselves leading members of the “metropolitan elite” that they profess to revile. And let us accept that there is a case for civil service reform – though not right now, and not in this brutal, hostile manner.

Gove was laying a veneer of respectability over the ugly truth. Sedwill’s dismissal is a power grab, and a triumph of ideology over common sense. Johnson and Cummings removed him because they considered him an obstacle to their pursuit of the hardest possible Brexit and their absurd but immensely destructive “revolution”.

Just as they have appointed a cabinet of incompetents distinguished only by their blind loyalty, so they are now intent on bending the civil service to their will and destroying its precious neutrality.