O’Donnell: Frost's appointment as national security adviser ‘risks civil service politicisation’

PM says Frost will reinvigorate UK’s national security architecture but former top officials warn of "groupthink" risk
David Frost (left) with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier

By Richard Johnstone

29 Jun 2020

Former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell has warned that the appointment of the prime minister’s special adviser David Frost as the government’s next national security adviser is a clear erosion of the impartiality of the civil service.

Speaking after the weekend announcement of the departure of Sir Mark Sedwill as cabinet secretary and national security adviser, and the government’s confirmation of his replacement as NSA by the government’s Brexit negotiator David Frost, O’Donnell said turning the role into a politically appointed one “worries me”.

Frost is a former civil servant who has spent time as ambassador to Denmark, the Foreign Office’s EU director, and director for Europe and international trade at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. He left the civil service in 2013 to become chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association before returning to government – this time as a special adviser to Johnson as foreign secretary – in November 2016.

After Johnson became prime minister, Frost was named his chief Brexit negotiator, taking over from Olly Robbins. The move turned the post from a civil service role into a politically appointed special adviser position.

Asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme if making the same change to the position of national security adviser meant the impartiality of the civil service was being eroded, O’Donnell said it was “quite clearly an example of that”.

He said: “I'm reassured by the fact that we're going to have a proper process amongst existing and former cabinet permanent secretaries to try and find a replacement, but I am worried about the appointment of David Frost as national security advisor without any process [and I am] not quite sure how putting a special advisor in that role works.

“It's a problem because political appointees are more likely to be subject to groupthink. They're more likely to be yes men; they're more likely to say what it is ministers want to hear as opposed to speaking truth to power.”

Johnson has said Frost help the UK “project influence for the better” in his new role.

“I have asked David to help me deliver this government’s vision for Britain’s place in the world and to support me in reinvigorating our national security architecture and ensuring that we deliver for the British people on the international stage," he said in his announcement yesterday.

Frost said: “I am delighted and honoured to have been appointed the next national security adviser. I look forward to helping deliver the prime minister’s vision for a global Britain, with real influence around the world.”

He added: “My aim is to support the prime minister in setting a new strategic vision for Britain’s place in the world as an independent country after the end of the EU transition period, and in championing that vision as we strengthen our international relationships.

“To do this effectively we need to strengthen and refocus our international policy apparatus, to ensure that we keep pace with others in the world. The creation of the new Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office is one important step in this. Implementing the Integrated Review of our international capability, and making sure we use the National Security Council to drive its results, are also essential and I look forward to leading both.”

Lord Peter Ricketts, who was the national security adviser from 2010 to 2012, said that making the post a political appointment “completely changes the nature of the role, no longer a politically-neutral civil servant giving dispassionate advice”.

He said the move appeared to signal a move towards "US-style politicisation of top jobs", and contrasted it to the core message of a speech by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove this weekend.

Delivering the annual Ditchley lecture on Saturday, Gove warned: "Groupthink can affect any organisation – the tendency to coalesce around a cosy consensus, resist challenge, look for information which confirms existing biases and reject rigorous testing of delivery."

But Ricketts said: “In contrast to Mr Gove’s soaring Ditchley speech about avoiding groupthink in civil service by widening the talent pool, what we are getting is PM surrounding himself with loyal advisers who share his political views.”


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