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30 June 2020

What Theresa May gets right, and Michael Gove gets wrong, about David Frost

The former prime minister has rounded on the government for appointing its chief EU negotiator as national security adviser in place of Mark Sedwill.  

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May has rounded on the government for appointing David Frost to the role of national security adviser, describing him (correctly) as “a political appointee with no proven expertise in national security”, who flies in the face of Michael Gove’s claim that the government is seeking to reform Whitehall to increase the amount and quality of expert advice.

Gove has insisted that previous holders of the role also had diplomatic experience rather than experience in the intelligence and security communities. Who’s right?

May’s description of Frost’s qualifications for the role is unquestionably correct. His appointment as national security adviser, as I wrote in our morning briefing yesterday, does change how the role has operated in practice since its creation in 2010. While Frost is an experienced Foreign Office official and former diplomat – he holds his role as chief EU negotiator as a political appointee, but like many policy-focused special advisers he cut his teeth in the civil service beforehand – he has no meaningful experience in the intelligence and security communities. Gove is incorrect when he says that Peter Ricketts, Mark Lyall Grant, and Kim Darroch, the previous holders of the role, lacked relevant experience.

Ricketts, the inaugural holder of the role, had been the UK’s permanent representative to Nato and chair of the joint intelligence committee, while Darroch had responsibility for the Soviet Union and satellites during the last years of the Cold War, and Lyall Grant was high commissioner to Pakistan during the height of George W Bush’s ‘War on Terror’.

While you can fairly say that Frost’s appointment fixes a problem created by May in appointing Mark Sedwill to the posts of national security adviser and head of the civil service – a huge amount of power and responsibility to be concentrated in the hands of one official – you cannot reasonably say that Frost is as qualified for the role as it as operated since 2010 as any of the three previous holders. 

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However, it is less clear whether Frost is unqualified for the role as envisaged in the policy review that led to its creation. The role of national security adviser emerged from the defence and security review conducted by Pauline Neville-Jones, on behalf of David Cameron when the Conservatives were last in opposition, to coordinate the national security functions of the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the Department of International Development and, to a lesser but still important degree, the work of bodies such as HMRC in combating frauds that help to fund organised terrorism and other national security threats. So it may be appropriate – useful even – for the role to be held by a generalist rather than a specialist.

But the government can’t honestly say that the Frost appointment is not a departure from the previous functioning of the role.