Mark Sedwill's exit serves two purposes for Boris Johnson

The Cabinet Secretary's departure shows how the government plans to defend its coronavirus record.

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Mark Sedwill has announced he will stand down as Cabinet Secretary, National Security Adviser and as head of the Civil Service in September, following months of speculation over his future as the most senior civil servant at the heart of Boris Johnson’s administration.

The Prime Minister can’t formally ask the Cabinet Secretary to resign, so this was, at least officially, Sedwill’s decision. But following a large amount of negative briefing against him, and reported disagreements with the Prime Minister’s most senior political adviser, Dominic Cummings, the decision looks to have been largely out of Sedwill’s hands. The Cabinet Secretary is a civil servant, but also plays an important advisory role in No 10: if the working relationship breaks down between Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary, it is clear to both parties that the Cabinet Secretary must go, simply in the interests of having the role carried out effectively. 

The move is significant for two reasons: it is yet another step towards the government’s longstanding objective of shaking up Whitehall; and, closely linked to the former, yet another development in what looks to be a political effort to implicate the civil service in the perceived failings of the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whitehall reform is a well-known personal ambition of Cummings and a longstanding aim of the Johnson administration, a project that was put on the backburner during the height of the pandemic. Ever since observing the inner workings of Whitehall as an aide to Michael Gove, the Cummings has been a keen critic of the bureaucracy, recruitment patterns and “bloated” nature of the Whitehall machine. Now, as lockdown is eased and the government ramps up its pre-Covid “levelling up” rhetoric, it is also returning its focus to civil service reform, announcing that the Department for International Development will be merged with the Foreign Office. Gove delivered a speech at the weekend reaffirming this commitment, saying that “group think” needed to be challenged within government ranks and that "every arm of government seemed estranged from the majority”. 

It was widely reported, meanwhile, that Cummings told a meeting last week that a hard rain is coming to No 10 and the Cabinet Office, which co-ordinates the implementation of policy across the government.

With the announcement of Sedwill’s departure, the political purpose of such a critique comes into focus. Whitehall reform is widely considered to be a positive aim, and should, arguably be a neutral one, a question of incremental changes to a large, neutral organisation that supports the work of government. But the leaked briefings from Cummings and public statements from Gove suggest an invidious political context to the departure: Sedwill is not leaving under a storm of personal criticism of his competence, but as an encapsulation of wider political criticisms of the civil service as obstructive to the aims of the government of the day.

This has been a recurring theme since the Brexit referendum, in which wholly legitimate criticisms of blockages and shortcomings within the Whitehall machine are mixed into a more political critique of its personnel as out of touch, elitist, and incompetent either as the unintended consequence of this detachment from ordinary people, or as the willful result of it. In the new context of the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, that critique is being revivied and repurposed. It is already being briefed that the Covid-19 crisis exposed the weaknesses in the Whitehall system. As that discussion continues, it is not hard to see how that message, with its existing political salience from the Brexit era, will be amplified to shift the balance of responsibility away from the politicians, and towards the people who serve them. 

The resignation of Sedwill will prompt material changes in the way Whitehall works, not least in the division of the roles of National Security Adviser and Cabinet Secretary, the former of which is to be taken over by David Frost, who will also (ironically, given the criticism of Sedwill for taking on two senior roles) continue in his role as chief negotiator of the future relationship with the EU. 

But it is also another indicator of the defence the government is preparing to mount over its handling of the pandemic, and the shape of the debate to come.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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