While Mark Sedwill may have been Theresa May’s “first and only choice” for the head of the civil service for his star quality and decades of experience, the so-called “securocrat” failed to hit the mark with Boris Johnson.
Rumours of rifts between him and senior No 10 staff over the handling of coronavirus have dogged Westminster for weeks with accusations he has not taken command, although in reality Sedwill may never have quite recovered from his public warning that a no-deal Brexit would be a dire outcome for the UK.
With some of Johnson’s most senior allies from the Vote Leave camp running Downing Street, it is likely he was viewed as a remainer at heart with the potential to obstruct the prime minister’s path.
The wording of his resignation letter to Boris Johnson that “we have agreed I will stand down” speaks volumes of a dysfunctional relationship that was no longer tenable. Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, is also well known to harbour less than complimentary views on Whitehall mandarins, preferring the talents of scientists, data analysts and physicists rather than civil service lifers.
Cummings is reported to have warned just last week that a “hard rain” would soon fall on the civil service. If this move has been prompted by Cummings then it does much to re-establish his power base within Downing Street after it briefly looked on shaky ground when he incensed the nation by travelling to County Durham during lockdown.
The scene was also set for impending change within Whitehall when senior cabinet minister Michael Gove said in a speech on Saturday, he attacked “group think” within the civil service.
There is no doubt that Sedwill wielded significant control. Not only was he cabinet secretary but he also occupied the role of national security adviser, an unusual arrangement that May preferred but which some felt did not provide enough variety of opinion at the very top of government. Wherever Johnson turned, he would have been within his orbit of decision-making.
The fact the national security post has been immediately filled by David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit aide and a political appointment who is not a member of the civil service, shows that the prime minister perhaps feels more comfortable with a true Brexiter providing support on global relations and security.
Sedwill was born and grew up in Lincolnshire, attending Bourne grammar school. He studied international economics at the University of St Andrews and has a masters in economics from St Edmund Hall, Oxford.
After joining the Foreign Office in 1989, he had postings in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan. With a CV suggesting connections with MI5 and MI6, Sedwill has been portrayed as a spook happier in the company of spies and soldiers rather than with those who want to wield a political axe.
With the current occupant of Downing Street and Cummings both being uniquely fearless in proposing radical changes to Whitehall, and with the overarching principle of this government still being “getting Brexit done”, Sedwill’s presence has ultimately proved incompatible.