Boris Johnson, left, shakes hands with Mark Sedwill as the Tory leader is welcomed into Downing Street on his first day as prime minister in July 2019 © Getty Images

Mark Sedwill will stand down in September as the UK’s most senior civil servant, as Boris Johnson launches a controversial overhaul of the centre of power in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Sir Mark currently serves as cabinet secretary and national security adviser and is leaving both posts, following months of tensions inside Downing Street over the government’s handling of Covid-19. Mr Johnson will split the two roles, which had been combined under Sir Mark.

David Frost, Britain’s chief EU trade negotiator, was named as the new national security adviser on Sunday evening.

The choice of Mr Frost, a former ambassador to Denmark and head of the Scotch Whisky Association, was greeted with dismay by some in the military and security services, who felt he was underqualified for the job.

One senior Tory said defence officials were “going apeshit”. One military official said: “There’s a whole swath of the mandarin class on the security brief who have had their noses put out of joint. It’s not going down well at all.”

Mr Frost, a political appointment to the NSA job, hopes to conclude talks with the EU on a future trade agreement before taking up his new role in September.

Mr Johnson said Mr Frost was “an experienced diplomat, policy thinker and proven negotiator with a strong belief in building Britain’s place in the world”.

Sir Mark, who has served as cabinet secretary since 2018 and national security adviser since 2017, has been “unhappy” recently, according to colleagues.

In an attempt to reassure Whitehall that Mr Frost’s appointment did not mark the start of a politicisation of Britain’s independent civil service, Number 10 said Sir Mark would be replaced as cabinet secretary by another mandarin.

“There will be an open competition, open only to serving and former permanent secretaries,” an ally of Mr Johnson said. Sir Mark will step down from both roles in September and become a peer.

Simon Case, the 41-year-old civil servant brought in to Downing Street to bolster the government’s handling of coronavirus, is not expected to be one of the candidates.

The exit of Sir Mark, a career diplomat, is part of a wider shake-up of the civil service overseen by the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, and cabinet office minister Michael Gove.

Sir Mark has been criticised by colleagues for holding the two roles of cabinet secretary and national security adviser. Peter Ricketts, who served as the UK’s first national security adviser from 2010 to 2012, welcomed moves to split the two.

“It is a golden opportunity to recreate the badly-needed role of national security adviser. It was more than a full-time job when I did it and the world is an order of magnitude more dangerous and unpredictable now,” he said.

Mr Johnson’s allies said Mr Frost, a Brexiter who is trusted by the Vote Leave officials in Downing Street, would play a vital role in developing his vision of a “Global Britain”.

Meanwhile, Simon McDonald, the Foreign Office permanent secretary, has also been ousted from his job by Number 10 earlier than he had hoped. He is regarded as an ardent Remainer and will be replaced in the autumn.

One senior civil servant said that Sir Mark may opt for a career in the private sector, although he has been asked by Mr Johnson to lead a panel on “global economic security” during Britain’s presidency of the G7 in 2021.

“Mark is someone who has a formidable intellect and a huge amount of experience. He will be able to earn 10 times as much in the private sector if he wants to. It would be understandable if he just thought ‘it’s not worth the battle’.”

Another Whitehall figure said the shake-up seemed as much about Mr Gove and Mr Cummings ensuring that their “people” were in charge rather than the pursuit of a radical policy agenda: “It’s all about control.”

“Senior civil servants and permanent secretaries are all saying how toxic the atmosphere has been for the last four or five months. Some permanent secretaries are saying ‘I’m not going to stay on and complete my term’,” the official said.

Sir Mark’s departure had been expected for some months amid rising tensions with the prime minister’s inner circle. One ally of Mr Johnson said the prime minister had come close to firing Sir Mark at the end of May, when Mr Cummings and other advisers argued that he was a barrier to reform.

But Mr Johnson was later persuaded by chief strategic adviser Eddie Lister and Martin Reynolds, his principal private secretary, not to remove him. 

Mr Gove set out his manifesto for reforming the civil service on Saturday in a lecture entitled “The privilege of public service”. Citing former US president Franklin D Roosevelt, he said the centre of government had to be reformed to improve delivery and policy for “the forgotten man”. 

Additional reporting by Helen Warrell

Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article