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29 June 2020 16:31

Gavin Williamson Secretary of State for Defence of the United Kingdom Theresa May

Who is Mark Sedwill and why is the top civil servant resigning?

Former senior civil servants and opposition parties have condemned the departure of Sir Mark Sedwill as a sign the government is undermining the impartiality of the civil service, as Downing Street defended its decision to install a political appointee to one of his former jobs. It was announced on Sunday that Sedwill will step down as cabinet secretary, the country's most senior civil servant, as well as Boris Johnson's national security adviser, following months of briefings targeting him. But the departure of Sedwill after just two years in the job, and the immediate announcement that he will be replaced as national security adviser by David Frost, Johnson's chief Brexit negotiator, who is a political appointee rather than a civil servant, has brought criticism. Writing in the Guardian, Bob Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, said the practice of governments briefing against officials was "cowardly, unfair and undermining". He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I'm worried about the appointment of David Frost as national security adviser because I'm not quite sure how putting a special adviser in that role works." Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said it was "obvious" that Johnson had decided to shunt out Sedwill, adding: "Why you do so in the middle of a pandemic and a crisis instead of actually focusing on the crisis, is a question the prime minister needs to answer." The senior Tory backbencher George Freeman tweeted that it made sense to split Sedwill's two roles, adding: "But a huge loss to lose Mark Sedwill who is an outstanding public servant & such a highly experienced Government official in midst of this crisis." He said: "Sir Mark and the PM agreed that the prime minister will need a new national security adviser and a separate cabinet secretary, and head of the civil service, to support him with this agenda.

Boris Johnson has dismissed criticism of the departure of the UK's top civil servant, saying the timing of Sir Mark Sedwill's exit was "very logical". Sir Mark is to stand down as the UK's top civil servant in September and will also relinquish his role as national security adviser to the prime minister. The PM's chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, who is not a civil servant, will take over as national security adviser. The Labour leader suggested Sir Mark's exit - the latest in a number of top civil servants to stand down since the general election - was badly timed given the UK was in the middle of a health and economic emergency. Sir Mark was handpicked by Theresa May to be cabinet secretary - a role in which he advises on the implementation of policy and conduct of government - Sir Jeremy Heyward's death in November 2018.

Potential candidates include Simon Case, recently appointed permanent secretary within No 10, Alex Chisholm, the Civil Service's chief operating officer and Antonia Romeo, who runs the Department for International Trade. Lord O'Donnell said he would have preferred Sir Mark to have stayed in post and he was worried about the choice of Mr Frost to be national security adviser given he had largely specialised in trade issues during his years in the Foreign Office and while working in the private sector. The UK's most senior civil servant has announced that he is to step down as both cabinet secretary and national security adviser in September. In a letter to Boris Johnson, Mark Sedwill said it was the right time to depart as the government moves to the next phase of its coronavirus recovery plan. The resignation follows reports of tensions between Sedwill and "senior members" of the prime minister's team, with the FDA civil servants' union claiming that Downing Street has undermined the career diplomat in a "cowardly" way, the BBC reports.

Sedwill has served as national security adviser to the PM since 2017 and took over as cabinet secretary following the sudden death of Jeremy Heywood in November 2018. Sedwill's departure is a major step towards achieving that aim, because "the cabinet secretary is the boss of thousands and thousands of civil servants, and holds the ultimate responsibility for making the government machine works", Kuenssberg adds. David Frost, Britain's chief EU trade negotiator, has been named as the new national security adviser. Sir Mark Sedwill will step down as Britain's top civil servant and national security chief in September, it has been confirmed, as Boris Johnson plans a major shake-up of Whitehall. The Cabinet Secretary said it had been a "privilege to serve" the PM as the Cabinet Office confirmed that the senior mandarin will also exit his role as National Security Adviser and head of the civil service.

David Frost, Boris Johnson's top Brexit negotiator, will step into the national security job. The move follows months of briefings against Sir Mark, a long-serving official who was brought into the crucial Number 10 role by Theresa May after a stint heading up the Home Office. And it comes after Dominic Cummings, the PM's most senior adviser and a longstanding critic of the way the civil service is run promised that a "hard rain" will fall on Whitehall in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. 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. The Prime Minister said in his own letter to Sir Mark: "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 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 Sir Mark has combined with his job heading up the civil service.

The Prime Minister also made the unusual move in recent months of bringing in a dedicated Number 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 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. For those who watch these things, the departure of Sir Mark Sedwill as cabinet secretary and chief security adviser followed a now familiar and depressing pattern. In case it gets forgotten in the next news cycle it needs to be said loud and clear that this way of doing business, involving anonymous briefings to the media about individual civil servants, is cowardly, unfair and undermining. Boris Johnson's chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who has long been hostile to the civil service, was reported saying last week that "a hard rain is coming" for them.