Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Sir Mark Sedwill is to step down as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service in September, it has been confirmed, as Boris Johnson plans a major shake-up of Whitehall.
The former diplomat said it had been a “privilege to serve” the prime minister as the Cabinet Office confirmed he will also exit his role, which also includes serving as national security adviser.
David Frost, Johnson’s top Brexit negotiator, will step into the national security job.
The move follows months of briefings against Sedwill, a long-serving official who was brought into the Cabinet Office role in 2018 by then-prime minister Theresa May after a stint heading up the Home Office.
And it comes after Dominic Cummings, the PM’s most senior political adviser and a longstanding critic of the way the civil service is run, promised a "hard rain” would fall on Whitehall in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In his letter to Johnson, Sedwill, whose exit was first reported in the Sunday Telegraph, said the pair had "agreed that I will stand down".
And he said: “Two years ago, when my predecessor fell ill, your predecessor asked me to step in as cabinet secretary, and you asked me to continue to support you through Brexit and the election period.
“It was obviously right to stay on for the acute phase of the Covid-19 crisis. As you are setting out this week, the government’s focus is now shifting to domestic and global recovery and renewal.”
He added: “I am fortunate to have served in some of the most challenging and rewarding jobs in national and international public service under seven prime ministers and in extraordinary times.
"I am grateful for your confidence and friendship as both foreign secretary and prime minister. I wish you well and, of course, remain at your disposal in the years ahead. It has been a privilege to serve.”
The Cabinet Office confirmed that Sedwill would be nominated for a a place in the House of Lords with a life peerage “in recognition of his distinguished service to public life”.
He will also be asked to head up a new G7 panel “on global economic security”, the department said.
The prime minister said in his own letter to Sedwill: “Over the last few years I have had direct experience of the outstanding service that you have given to the government and to the country as a whole.
“It has been by any standards a massive contribution – but as PM I have particularly appreciated your calm and shrewd advice.
“You have also spoken with a unique authority – unusual in a cabinet secretary - on international affairs and national security; and as national security adviser you have done much to keep this country safe. It is therefore great news that you have agreed to continue to serve this country on the international stage, beginning with the UK’s preparations for the G7 summit next year.”
The Civil Service Commission, which regulates Whitehall appointments, will now oversee a recruitment process to find a new cabinet secretary and head of the civil service.
Meanwhile Frost, who was brought into Whitehall by Johnson and is currently the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, will take on the national security adviser role that Sedwill has combined with his job heading up the civil service.
That combination of roles – a first for a cabinet secretary – has drawn some criticism during Sedwill's time at the top of Whitehall.
The prime minister also made the unusual move in recent months of bringing in a dedicated No.10 permanent secretary, with long-serving official Simon Case appointed at the height of the pandemic as the government sought to get a grip on its response.
Frost will also be nominated for a life peerage, No.10 said – and will take up the national security role in August after a “short transition period”.
But Downing Street confirmed he would continue to spearhead the Brexit negotiations until they are concluded.
Johnson said: “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.”
Frost said: “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.”
He added: “I will of course remain chief negotiator for the EU talks and these will remain my top single priority until those negotiations have concluded, one way or another."
But the FDA union, which represents senior officials, accused No.10 of using "self-defeating and corrosive" tactics to force Sedwill out.
And, responding to the announcement, Helen Hayes, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: “We pay tribute to the work Mark Sedwill has done. He has been a dedicated public servant and has run the civil service in difficult times.”
But she added: “On the day it was revealed millions of jobs across the country could be under threat in the coming months, it is very concerning that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are preoccupied with reshuffling Whitehall.”