Coronavirus has changed everything. Make sense of it all with the Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing. Sign up now.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson did not deny Boris Johnson had wanted a Brexiteer to replace Sir Mark Sedwill as the UK’s top civil servant.
The news Sedwill was to resign from his dual role as cabinet secretary and national security adviser sent shockwaves through Westminster on Sunday.
It comes amid fears a wider shake-up of Whitehall by the PM, spearheaded by his top adviser Dominic Cummings, will erode the impartiality of the civil service.
Speaking on Radio 4′s Today programme on Monday, Williamson was also challenged about Sedwill’s replacement in the national security adviser role, David Frost.
Frost is controversial choice. He was originally hired as an aide to the Tory government to help conduct the EU-UK trade talks – a role he will continue to serve in alongside his national security job. Normally, top civil servants are required to be politically neutral.
Williamson claimed it was “not unusual”, however, and drew comparisons between US and UK politics.
Asked if the appointment had been a political one, Williamson told the programme: “He will be, but that’s not unusual. That’s what you see in the United States, that’s what you see in many other countries.
“This is a man who has impeccable public service, very much a background that similar people who have held this role in the past before have come from, having worked in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for an awful long time – so this isn’t an unusual appointment.”
Williamson did not deny the government was seeking a Brexiteer, saying: “The prime minister’s search is to get the very best person into that role and applications will be opening from next month to get someone of the very highest calibre to step into some big shoes.”
Williamson lost his job as defence secretary in Theresa May’s administration after Sedwill found him to be the source of a leak of information about a National Security Council meeting on Chinese firm Huawei.
The education secretary was also asked if he was sorry to see Sedwill go and he did not directly say that he was, telling the BBC: “Well, I think what the prime minister said in terms of his letter, paying a fulsome tribute to the work that Sir Mark has done over his 31 long years was very, very fitting.”
Former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, meanwhile, said he was concerned over Sedwill’s resignation.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m worried about the appointment of David Frost as national security adviser because I’m not quite sure how putting a special adviser in that role works, how that’s consistent with Michael Gove’s desire for deep subject knowledge for someone who hasn’t really had much of a background in national security.”
Asked if the service’s impartiality is being eroded, the peer said: “I think appointing a special adviser to a national security role is quite clearly an example of that.
“It’s a problem because political appointees are there and they are more likely to be subject to group-think, more likely to be yes-men, more likely to say what it is ministers want to hear as opposed to giving good, objective, speaking truth to power which is what it’s all about.”