Sir Mark Sedwill has attempted to quell fears that his successor as national security adviser, David Frost, will be comprimised in the role because he is a political appointee.
Frost, the UK's chief Brexit negotiator, was named as the next national security adviser at the end of last month, when Sedwill announced he would step down from his tripartite role as cabinet secretary, NSA and head of the civil service.
The announcement prompted some concern from MPs and former officials.
Former cab sec Lord Gus O’Donnell said the move was “clearly an example” of politicisation of the civil service, and came with the risk that political appointees were more likely to be “yes men”.
And Theresa May, who appointed Sedwill cabinet secretary and kept him in the NSA role, slammed the appointment, saying Frost had “no proven expertise”.
Frost had a longstanding career in the Foreign Office, including as ambassador to Denmark, before leaving government and returning as a special adviser to Boris Johnson as foreign secretary last year.
But speaking to parliament’s committee on the National Security Strategy this week, Sedwill said Frost was a “very experienced diplomat”.
“I was, don’t forget, the first national security adviser to have run a big, domestic department,” he said, referring to his own five-year stint as Home Office perm sec.
“All the others had diplomatic experience: Peter Ricketts had been permanent secretary of the Foreign Office, Kim Darroch and Mark Lyall Grant had been senior ambassadors but they hadn’t run the Home Office. They didn’t have massive domestic security experience,” he said.
And he said Frost’s job as NSA would not be “not to try and be the expert, but to try and draw on the expertise [of the National Security Council and other advisers] and represent the prime minister and the government”.
“The key to that job is that you can speak authentically and with authority on behalf of the prime minister,” he told MPs.
“The full title of the job is now reverted to being ‘the prime minister’s national security adviser’ [rather than UK national security adviser]; that’s what other governments want when they’re dealing with that person,” he said. It is “common” in other administrations for the NSA to be a political appointee “who is closely aligned with the head of government”, he added.
“David’s authority – as with any national security adviser – really comes from his proximity to the head of government, the degree to which he can speak on behalf of the prime minister and the national security council within government and overseas,” he said.
Sedwill did, however, confirm that Frost would not be responsible for overseeing the intelligence agencies’ budgets or performance reviews.
The serving NSA has acted as line manager for the heads of the intelligence agencies since the role was created in 2010. But Sedwill said this managerial responsibility would revert to the next cabinet secretary, rather than Frost, as it must be done by a civil servant.
'I haven't resigned'
Asked why he had resigned after just two years as cabinet secretary, Sedwill said: “I haven’t resigned; the prime minister and I agreed I should step down.”
Sedwill said the timing of his departure had been his own initiative – and while the coronavirus crisis had “had an effect” on that timing, he had never intended to stay in the job long term.
Speaking to MPs the day before it emerged he is in line to receive a payout of nearly £250,000 on leaving the civil service, Sedwill said: “The longest I would have run would have been a little later in this parliament. I’m in my mid-50s, I’ve still got, I hope, quite a lot of life in me yet for other activities.”
He added that he had "never intended" to be cabinet secretary but had stepped up because the circumstances demanded it when his predecessor Jeremy Heywood became ill. “I had the job I felt I’d spent 30 years qualifying myself for [as Home Office perm sec], and because of the circumstances of Jeremy’s tragic illness, the then-prime minister asked me to step in.”
And the civil service head said he had not been pushed out of the job by hostile briefings that had appeared about him in the press.
“It’s never pleasant to find oneself, particularly as an official, in the midst of stories of that kind. I’m not the only official that’s happened to, indeed others have sometimes had it worse,” Sedwill said.
“But we appear to be in an era where some of us are fair game in the media and it, I’m afraid, goes with the territory now.”
Overcoming ‘turfy behaviours’
As the next cab sec is appointed, responsibility for overseeing the government’s coronavirus response will remain with No.10 permanent secretary Simon Case, Sedwill said.
Case, who left government to run Prince William's household in 2018, returned in March to coordinate the Covid-19 response.
Sedwill said it “remains to be seen” whether the No.10 post would continue “with a broader remit” after the pandemic.
Responding to a grilling from MPs about how the government had handled the crisis, Sedwill said there would “clearly be lessons” to learn.
One lesson would be for government bodies to continue working together effectively across silos once the pandemic was over, he said.
“We do it in a crisis but all of the old silos, slightly turfy behaviours, those things can reassert themselves quite quickly when a crisis is over.
“So I think the really big thing is: how do we ensure the same unity of effort, unity of purpose that we do achieve in a crisis, the willingness for everyone to go the extra mile, to figure out ways around the barriers and silos or tunnel through them? How do we make that just the way we operate normally? Because I think that could be quite transformative.”