The departure of Sir Mark Sedwill from his jobs as cabinet secretary and national security adviser has followed months of secret briefings targeting him which have been condemned by leading military, security and diplomatic figures as “appalling and unnecessary”, and designed to ensure that the most senior jobs in Whitehall go to Brexiteers.
Despite Downing Street’s denial that Sedwill’s exit has been orchestrated by Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, there is a strong concern about systematic politicisation of the civil service. David Frost, Johnson’s chief negotiator with the European Union and a long-term Eurosceptic, has been appointed national security adviser to take over from Sedwill. No 10 officials have also been saying privately that the cabinet secretary role would also go to a Brexiteer.
Sedwill was Nato’s most senior civilian official in Afghanistan, having previously been British ambassador there. He worked alongside General David Petraueus, the US commander, during a particularly violent period even by the standards of that country. He has been national security advisor at a time of lethal terrorist attacks, the Skripal poisoning, and the programme to rebalance the military.
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Frost, who has served as ambassador to Denmark, policy director at the Foreign Office and special adviser to Boris Johnson when he was Foreign Secretary, has no background in the security field.
“This has been presented by people in this government as a great move towards diversity. But it is not; it is a move for ‘chumocracy’. Someone in Boris Johnson’s inner circle is being moved higher up the inner circle,” General Sir Richard Barrons, the former chief of Joint Forces Command who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland, told The Independent.
“David Frost was a middle-ranking ambassador. He also dealt with strategy at the Foreign Office and so he will be good at taking a strategic view. But when it comes to matter of security, is knowledge is zero, and that is a matter of concern.
“There is another aspect to this. I personally thought that Mark Sedwill had taken on too much being both the national security advisor and cabinet secretary. But Frost is going to continue to be the Brexit negotiator at what is going to be a crucial time in the withdrawal negotiations. So how focused can he be at the national security part of his job in what is going to be quite an important time?
“Sedwill did some good things as NSA, in particular the March 2018 fusion doctrine. His experience and expertise will be missed. With Frost there may be worry that being part of the ‘chumocracy’, how much of a critical scrutiny of government practices, which is vital, can he actually exercise? The flipside of that, I suppose, is that being part of the circle he will have access, and may be able to get important things done.”
There is consensus among most in the diplomatic and security field that a strong case can be made that the two such important posts, of Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor, was one too many for a single person to handle.
Sir William Patey, who has served as British Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Sudan told The Independent: “It is totally unfair if some people are trying to blame Mark Sedwill and the civil service for what went wrong with the handling of coronavirus, and if that is being used in any way for Mark’s departure. That’s entirely self-serving and wrong. [But] it was very difficult for him to do the two jobs, I think that’s generally recognised. David Frost has not got a security background in something like counter-terrorism. But it seems he has Boris Johnson’s ear, they have the same views, he will be a trusted adviser.”
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A senior former intelligence officer also spoke of his dismay at the briefings against Sedwill and Sir Stuart McDonald: “It’s so appalling and so unnecessary. They talk about carrying out reform, but all that’s been quite nasty. I suppose it was all going to come to an end, but it’s all pretty depressing.
“They are saying they want a Brexiteer as cabinet secretary. But why should the government want to know what the private political views of a public servant is? It should be the best person for the job. David Frost is quite open about his Brexit views. He does not have that much knowledge of security, but he’s capable and he’ll have a good team around him. But there again, Cummings and co seem to have just appointed him, the normal process of selection was just ignored.”
The National Security Advisor’s job for Frost is seen as a political appointment. Sir Peter Ricketts, a former National Security Advisor, said: “What we are seeing is a PM surrounding himself with loyal advisors who share his political views. That completely changes the nature of the role. It is no longer a politically neutral civil servant giving dispassionate advice.”
Sir Mark, it is noted, is the third senior diplomat who has left public service since Cummings and Johnson got to No 10. Sir Kim Darroch, a former National Security Advisor, was effectively forced to resign as Ambassador to Washington after diplomatic messages from him, critical about Donald Trump, were mysteriously leaked, and Johnson failed to stand by him when he came under attack from Trump. Sir Simon McDonald, the permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office is leaving in September. He too was the subject of negative briefings. None of the three sang enough from the government hymn sheet, in the view of some in Downing Street. Sir Mark made a point of strongly defending Darroch when he was under pressure and after he resigned.
Ministers have spoken of the government taking the American approach to the National Security Advisor post. The president can bring in people from the outside and there have been a number of distinguished figures filling that role including Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezibnski, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell.
Donald Trump has been through the extraordinary number of six National Security Advisors, including acting ones, in his four years in office. Some of them, including the recently departed John Bolton, locked in acrimony with the President. “People leave because their views don’t tally with Trump’s, only nodding devotedly to whatever he thinks is deemed to be loyal” said Robert Emerson, a security analyst. “That is the danger of politicising the administrative system, that’s happening in the US and that’s happening over here.”