By Arj Singh
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Britain’s top civil Sir Mark Sedwill is to stand down from his dual jobs as cabinet secretary and national security adviser in September
The decision comes as part of Boris Johnson’s overhaul of the team of officials at the top of government, with his chief Brexit negotiator David Frost to replace Sedwill as national security adviser in an appointment likely to prove controversial given his lack of experience in intelligence or security.
A competition will be launched by first civil service commissioner Ian Watmore to appoint a new cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, with recent appointment as Downing Street permanent secretary Simon Case among those tipped for the top job.
Sedwill’s “two hats” position at the top of Whitehall has long been controversial among some Tory MPs since the two roles were united and handed to him by Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May.
But the manner of his departure following months of “corrosive” negative briefing that sought to “undermine” Sedwill was strongly criticised by the FDA civil servants’ union.
FDA general secretary David Penman said: “If Sir Mark no longer has the confidence of the prime minister, for whatever reason, that is one thing. It can be dealt with in a grown-up way, finding a solution that suits both parties, rather than excluding someone who has dedicated their life to public service and has excelled at every role they’ve been asked to fill.
“Instead, 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 many months. 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.
“How would any potential candidate for cabinet secretary judge their prospective employers, given how the current cadre of leaders has been treated by them?
“The danger here is that No.10 may have won this particular round of their power play, but at what cost?”
He added: “Whatever emerges as fact from the series of briefings that have sought to undermine Sir Mark’s position, this government will emerge weaker as a result.”
Johnson has nominated Sedwill for a life peerage and asked him to lead a new G7 panel on global economic security as the UK assumes the presidency.
In a letter to the prime minister, Sedwill said: “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.”
“I am fortunate to have served in some of the most challenging and rewarding jobs in national and international public service under seven prime ministers and in extraordinary times. I am grateful for your confidence and friendship as both foreign secretary and prime minister. I wish you well and, of course, remain at your disposal in the years ahead. It has been a privilege to serve.”
Responding, Johnson wrote: “Over the last few years I have had direct experience of the outstanding service that you have given to the government and to the country as a whole.”
“It has been by any standards a massive contribution – but as PM I have particularly appreciated your calm and shrewd advice.”
“You have also spoken with a unique authority – unusual in a cabinet secretary – on international affairs and national security; and as national security adviser you have done much to keep this country safe. It is therefore great news that you have agreed to continue to serve this country on the international stage, beginning with the UK’s preparations for the G7 summit next year.”
“You have done it all in Whitehall: from Afghanistan to the modernisation of the civil service; from immigration policy to Brexit and defeating coronavirus. After serving for decades with great distinction – and unflappable good humour – I believe you have earned the gratitude of the nation.”
Number 10 on Saturday announced a series of reforms which will see Johnson given a firmer grip over his cabinet.
The PM will chair a number of new “strategic committees” as part of his cabinet operation, which government sources said would be “responsible for setting direction on the Government’s domestic, international and economic priorities”.
Case, who was appointed permanent secretary in No.10 amid the coronavirus crisis, is tipped to be promoted to replace Sedwill as cabinet secretary.
It was Case rather than Sedwill who was asked to carry out a review of the two-metre social distancing restriction, a piece of work which helped pave the way for the “one metre-plus” changes announced by the PM last week.
Sedwill’s removal will also be seen as a win for the PM’s chief aide Dominic Cummings who is, according to The Times, said to have told a meeting of political aides this week that “hard rain is going to fall” after explaining how he felt Whitehall’s “fundamental” shortcomings had been displayed during the coronavirus crisis.
Johnson could face criticism over Frost’s elevation to national security adviser.
One source told HuffPost UK “he was CEO for the Scotch Whisky Association not long ago”.
Earlier, home secretary Priti Patel said: “Reform of the civil service is a matter that gets discussed in government and obviously a big role like that is subject to the prime minister.”
Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, Patel added that the PM would need the “right kind of support around him” to deliver on the government’s “levelling up” priorities.