The cabinet secretary was at odds with Dominic Cummings and the target of hostile briefings
Sir Mark Sedwill, the UK’s oldest civil servant, has announced that he will be retiring in September, angering former colleagues who say he was unfairly spotted by Boris Johnson’s aides for the government’s coronavirus flaws and for allegedly blocking changes in Whitehall.
After weeks of tense negotiations over his work, Sedwill said in a letter to the prime minister that he would step down as cabinet secretary and head of public service. His other role as a national security consultant will be taken over by Johnson’s chief Brexit adviser, David Frost.
His departure will be seen as a victory for Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s top aide, who had a strained relationship with Sedwill, and for Michael Gove, the cabinet minister who is promoting a restructuring of government departments.
Anonymous Downing Street sources told newspapers in March that Sedwill had failed to control the coronavirus crisis. Another source was quoted as saying he had quarreled with Johnson and his aides over the response to Covid-19. In April, members of the Cabinet Cabinet told the Guardian that the claims were “agitated and shitty”.
As cabinet secretary, Sedwill was to coordinate the work of the permanent secretaries, as they struggled with the blockade, supplies of personal protective equipment, food supplies, released from prison and coronavirus testing.
His resignation was met with anger from the former mandarins and comes weeks after other senior officials left their positions or are expected to leave after the conservatives’ victory in December.
Lord Kerslake, a former chief of public service, said Sedwill’s departure followed unfair and hostile instructions that tried to blame employees for coronavirus errors.
“The recent hostile briefing against Sir Mark was completely unacceptable and undermined a key role in the government at a time of great national crisis.
“I have high regard for Sir Mark and was responsible for the recruitment process that led him to become a permanent secretary of the Ministry of the Interior.
“I fear, from some information in the press that was obviously made, that the public service is being blamed for mistakes made in handling the pandemic. This is totally unfair. We urgently need an independent investigation to analyze the lessons that can be learned, ”he said.
Dave Penman, head of the FDA senior civil servants union, said: “No. 10 – or those around him – sought to undermine Sir Mark and the public service leadership with a series of anonymous briefings against him over many months. It is not only a self-destructive and corrosive tactic, it is also a coward, sure that those who are educated against it are unable to respond publicly.
“How would a potential candidate for cabinet secretary judge his prospective employers, considering how the current leaderboard was handled by them?”
Fiona McLeod Hill, former joint chief of staff for Theresa May, said: “This is a very sad day for the British government. I worked closely with Sir Mark for several years. He’s exceptional. He is also a very decent person. I remember how much he cared for my ex-partner, Sir Charles Farr, who passed away last year. I will always be grateful to him for that.
Frost’s appointment will also cause controversy, especially among security officials who may well question why a special consultant with no national security experience has been appointed to the crucial role usually reserved for experienced hands with knowledge of MI6 and MI5. Known as “Frosty” among Johnson’s inner circle of advisers, he will also receive a pair, it was announced on Sunday. Lord Ricketts, a former national security adviser, said Frost’s apparent political appointment will radically change the role usually played by public officials.
“This completely changes the nature of the role, ceasing to be a politically neutral civil servant, giving dispassionate advice. In addition, he is a colleague, so will he be a responsible minister before parliament? ”He wrote on Twitter.
Sedwill’s departure from number 10 is likely to be part of a broader overhaul of key jobs across the civil service overseen by Cummings and Gove.
Sir Philip Rutnam, former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Interior, is suing for unfair dismissal after leaving office in February, and Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is leaving in September after the merger with the Department of International Development.
After he leaves government service in September, Sedwill will be a peer and will chair a panel on global economic security when the United Kingdom takes over the presidency of the G7 group of nations. He must also assume another security-related role.
In an exchange of letters, Sedwill said he served Johnson and his predecessor May in “extraordinary times”.
“Two years ago, when my predecessor fell ill, your predecessor asked me to enter as cabinet secretary and you asked me to continue supporting you through Brexit and the election period,” he wrote.
“Obviously, it was right to continue in the acute phase of the Covid-19 crisis. As you are planning this week, the government’s focus is now shifting to domestic and global recovery and renewal. “
Johnson replied that Sedwill had made a “huge contribution” to public life in the past 30 years and had been a source of “insightful advice”.
“You did it all in Whitehall: from Afghanistan to modernizing the public service; immigration policy to Brexit and defeat the coronavirus ”, he said.
Sedwill, 55, cabinet secretary since 2018 and national security consultant since 2017, told friends he was irritated by negative instructions for many months.
Sedwill, who attended the cabinet and Cobra meetings, fell ill with the virus shortly after Johnson, Professor Chris Whitty, England’s medical director, and Matt Hancock, secretary of health. He informed the office when the prime minister was transferred to an intensive care unit.
Whitehall officials said several candidates were being discussed to replace him, including Tim Barrow, the UK’s ambassador to the EU.
Occasionally abrupt, Sedwill made enemies in the government. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was fired from his previous job as defense secretary after Sedwill led an investigation into a National Security Council leak and concluded that Williamson was the source.
Some senior civil servants claimed that he did not support Rutnam in the ongoing dispute due to allegations that Interior Secretary Priti Patel intimidated officials.
Sedwill was born and raised in Lincolnshire, attending Bourne grammar school. He studied international economics at St Andrews University and has a master’s degree in economics from St Edmund Hall, Oxford. After joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1989, he had deployments in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan.
Patel said on Sunday that significant changes at Whitehall will begin soon. “This is the government of the people, fulfilling the priorities of the people and, effectively, any government under reform will be based on the type of delivery that our Prime Minister wants to promote for our great country and, obviously, he has the right kind of support for around you to accomplish that goal. , ”She told Sky News.
Gove presented his manifesto to reform public service on Saturday, in a lecture entitled The Privilege of Public Service. The Cabinet minister said that the “metropolitan” perspectives of decision makers have contributed to the government “moving away” from the people.