Ex-PM Cameron criticises May and Johnson for Whitehall ‘mistakes’

Coalition-era PM slams “very bad” error of combining cab sec and national security adviser roles plus merger of DfID and FCO
David Cameron. Photo: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

02 Mar 2021

David Cameron has strongly criticised his two successors as prime minister for changes they made to the operations of Whitehall.

The former PM, who quit government in 2016 following the Brexit referendum, did not mince his words in describing Theresa May’s decision to combine the roles of cabinet secretary and national security adviser in 2018. 

Cameron said allowing Sir Mark Sedwill to retain the NSA role when he became cabinet secretary in 2018, following the death of Sir Jeremy Heywood, was “a very bad mistake” that had damaged the standing of the National Security Council. The move has been reversed by Boris Johnson.

Cameron’s words came in an evidence session to parliament’s National Security Strategy Committee yesterday. The former PM also offered no-punches-pulled views on the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office last year and the UK’s pandemic preparedness, based on his experience from six years in Downing Street.

“I think it was a very bad mistake combining cabinet secretary and national security adviser – they are two jobs,” he said.

“One person, even if you were a cross of Einstein, Wittgenstein and Mother Teresa, you couldn’t possibly do both jobs and I think that temporarily weakened the National Security Council.”

Cameron told MPs and peers that there were a selection of well-qualified individuals who could have served the nation as a dedicated NSA.

“You need a good national security adviser,” he said. “Britain’s got lots of incredible top diplomats and senior military figures and others, and I’m delighted that Stephen Lovegrove from the Ministry of Defence is going to be national security adviser. I think that will bring a new perspective.

“But I do think you need a prime minister who wants to use that machinery, and a national security adviser who feels bold and muscular enough to be a sort of plenipotentiary diplomat as well as a bureaucrat.”

Cameron was subsequently asked whether he believed the NSA could be a politician. He did not reject the idea, but suggested it was not a role that needed to be undertaken by a politician.

“Your equivalents in, for instance, the United States are appointed civil servants, and that’s an absolutely crucial relationship. So I don’t think it's necessary,” he said.

“The great thing is that you don’t have to have an FCO diplomat, you can have someone coming out of the military. You could have the former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence. You could have someone from outside government altogether. Someone who is an expert in strategy, you can bring them in.”

'Mistake' merging DfID and FCO

Cameron also criticised Boris Johnson’s decision to push ahead with the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year.

“I think abolishing DfID is a mistake too, for all sorts of reasons,” Cameron said. “But one of which is having the Foreign Office voice round the table and the DfID voice round the table is important because they’re not necessarily the same thing. 

“Having that deep development expertise about what we could do to help with the humanitarian situation in Syria [or] helping development in Afghanistan. Can you really expect the foreign secretary to be able to do all of the diplomatic stuff and be able to speak to the development brief as well? That’s quite a task. I think it’s good to have both.”

He added that the NSC should have input from both diplomats and development experts. 

Pandemic preparations

Cameron also acknowledged that mistakes were made in terms of planning for a pandemic – with the hindsight that Covid-19 has given the nation.

“The focus was very much on influenza rather than on respiratory diseases,” Cameron said of his time in government.

“I’m sure there’ll be a big inquiry into what we learn and all the rest… I think there was a pretty good flu pandemic plan, but it was a flu plan rather than a respiratory diseases plan.”

Cameron told MPs and peers that a unit had been set up within the Cabinet Office to “do global virus surveillance” during his six years at No.10.

“I’m not sure quite what  happened to that unit after I left, but it was there when I was there,” he said.

He added: “More should have been learned from the experience with SARS and the respiratory diseases in terms of our own preparedness. But I wouldn’t blame the national security architecture for that. The architecture was there.”

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