UK’s top civil servant stands down – a victory for Johnson and Cummings

Downing Street Whitehall

The UK’s most senior civil servant has announced he will stand down in September following months of tension at the heart of Downing Street.

Number 10 has blamed the top mandarin for the government’s coronavirus failings as well as blocking reforms in Whitehall so the departure of Sir Mark Sedwill – the cabinet secretary, head of the civil service and national security adviser – is seen as a major victory for the prime minister’s chief aide Dominic Cummings who has vowed a revolutionary overhaul of the civil service.

It has also set alarm bells ringing for many with Green MP Caroline Lucas among those warning: “This attack on our impartial civil service is completely unacceptable. The more so because the hand behind it belongs to an unelected official who treats rules – & the rest of us – with contempt.”

Government repeatedly briefed against Sedwill

Lucas’ tweet provoked a flurry of replies from people reminding that Sedwill – who was appointed cabinet secretary by Theresa May in 2018, making his reign at the top of the civil service the shortest ever – was not “impartial” given he previously commented that Brexit would be “disastrous” for the UK.

Those remarks set him on a collision course with Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ government which has repeatedly briefed against Sedwill “off the record”, especially regarding coronavirus.

Sedwill’s exit means three of the country’s top four civil servants have been cleared from their posts by Johnson, with only the permanent secretary at the Treasury remaining in place.

The former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake said his successor had been unfairly smeared by unelected aides in Downing Street and described the treatment of Sedwill as “unacceptable”.

Significant change coming to Whitehall

Sedwill’s role as national security adviser will be taken by David Frost who is currently the PM’s Brexit chief adviser and senior negotiator in talks with the EU.

The political appointment of an adviser to a top civil service role is a significant shift and more changes are coming to Whitehall, as indicated by Michael Gove who at the weekend outlined plans that include making the civil service “closer to the 52% who voted to leave [in the EU referendum]”.

Interviewed on Rupert Murdoch’s newly launched Times Radio Breakfast show this morning, Johnson praised the man he has forced out, saying of Sedwill: “He came in a very difficult time…He has seen the government through all sorts of very tough stuff.”

Asked about why he had not sacked Cummings who breached lockdown rules, the prime minister said instead that coronavirus has been a disaster but that there is now the opportunity to change and build something better.


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