Theresa May slams choice to name 'political appointee with no proven expertise' as national security adviser

Gove defends appointment of David Frost, "a distinguished diplomat in his own right"
Theresa May challenged Frost's appointment as national security adviser in the Commons. Photo: Parliament TV

Former prime minister Theresa May has slammed Boris Johnson’s decision to name a political appointee with “no proven expertise in national security” as the government’s next national security adviser.

Speaking days after Sir Mark Sedwill announced his plans to step down as cabinet secretary and national security adviser in the autumn, May was visibly angered by her successor’s decision to move his chief Brexit negotiator into the post.

David Frost, who had a 25-year long career in the civil and diplomatic service before he was a political adviser, is an “experienced diplomat, policy thinker, and proven negotiator, with a strong belief in building Britain’s place in the world’, Johnson said on Sunday.

Frost’s civil service career included a spell as ambassador to Denmark and a stint as Europe, trade and international affairs director in the business department, making him Britain’s most senior trade policy official. Johnson, then foreign secretary, appointed him as a special adviser in 2016, and as Brexit negotiator last year.

Speaking in the Commons yesterday, May quoted Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove’s comments in a lecture on Saturday that the government “must be able to promote those with proven expertise”.

“Why, then, is the new National Security Adviser a political appointee, with no proven expertise in national security?” she asked.

She said Sedwill, who has played a triple role as cab sec, NSA and head of the civil service, had provided “extraordinary public service over many years”.

“I served on the National Security Council for nine years – six years as home secretary and three as prime minister. During that time, I listened to the expert independent advice from national security advisers,” she said.

May's comments came after former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell said Frost's appointment was a "clear example" of civil service impartiality being eroded.

O'Donnell said political appointees were "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".

And Lord Peter Ricketts, the UK's first national security adviser, said that making a political appointment “completely changes the nature of the role, no longer a politically-neutral civil servant giving dispassionate advice”.

Responding to May's comments yesterday, Gove said that while previous national security advisers had all been “excellent”, they were not all “necessarily people who were steeped in the security world”.

“Some of them were distinguished diplomats in their own right. David Frost is a distinguished diplomat in his own right and it is entirely appropriate that the prime minister of the day should choose an adviser appropriate to the needs of the hour,” Gove said.

Ricketts, was an ambassador and then permanent secretary at the Foreign Office before taking up the role. He was also previously chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

He was succeeded by Sir Kim Darroch in 2012 and Mark Lyall Grant in 2015 – both of whom had spent time as the UK’s ambassador to the UN after a career in the Foreign Office. 

Lyall Grant, who was also a four-time president of the UN Security Council before taking up the NSA role, said it was an "important point" that a political adviser was not subject to the same impartiality as a civil servant.

"You have to be able to speak truth to power and you have to act as a constraint on the prime minister or ministers as and when necessary. So if you're just completely beholden to the prime minister, then I think that is unwise," he told CSW.

But he added: "I don't think David Frost fits into that category," having been a diplomat for the majority of his career.

Splitting the roles

Lyall Grant meanwhile said it was a good decision to separate the cabinet secretary and national security adviser jobs.

“When the national security adviser role was created in 2010, it was a specific position to do three roles: secretary to the National Security Council, head of the National Security Secretariat, and adviser to the prime minister on security, defence and foreign policy issues."  The first two parts of the post have a "civil service constitutional" roles, while the third entails acting as an adviser to the prime minister.

“Under those circumstanes I think it isn't wise to have the cabinet secretary and national security adviser the same, because then you're amalgamating three positions in the national security adviser role,” he said.

But he said it was “slightly odd” that Frost is set to take over as national security adviser in September, alongside his existing role as Brexit negotiator.

“At least until the end of the year there's a ‘double hatting’ there as well, which I think isn't wise – but obviously once the Brexit negotiations are complete, the follow-on relationship will be done by someone else and David Frost will be a full-time national security adviser,” he said.

David Lidington, who worked with Sedwill as Cabinet Office minister from 2016 to 2018, meanwhile said he was “surprised” by Frost’s appointment.

“I think there is a strong case for separating the posts again… if I look at the state of the world and the multifarious nature of the security challenges we face, I think that's a strong case for having one person focus all their energies and all their time on that. So that’s not an issue that troubles me.

“The question about the political appointment – that surprised me, that decision,” Lidington, who was a Foreign Office minister and then justice secretary before moving to the Cabinet Office, told CSW.

“We know David Frost will have the prime minister's complete confidence and he will derive from a fair amount of authority from that knowledge, but we will have to see how he performs in this role. I think the first big test will be how the integrated review is carried out,” he said.

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