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

Departure of career diplomat seen as victory for PM’s chief aide Dominic Cummings

Mark Sedwill
Mark Sedwill with Boris Johnson after December election, as Dominic Cummings lingers in background (R)
(Image credit: Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

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.

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The Guardian says that Sedwill’s departure will be seen as a “victory for Dominic Cummings”, in particular, and for Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, who “is pushing through a restructuring of government departments”.

Who is Mark Sedwill?

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.

As cabinet secretary, Sedwill has advised the PM on “implementing policy and the conduct of government”, the BBC says.

In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, he was also “supposed to coordinate the work of permanent secretaries as they grappled with the lockdown, supplies of personal protective equipment, food supplies, prison releases and coronavirus tests”, The Guardian adds.

Previously, Sedwill served as ambassador to Afghanistan, before working alongside Theresa May as the most senior civil servant in the Home Office.

Why is he resigning?

Johnson plans to launch a “controversial overhaul of the centre of power in the wake of the coronavirus crisis”, the Financial Times says. And this “wider shake-up of the civil service” will be overseen by Cummings, the PM’s most senior aide.

Sedwill is known to have a tense relationship with Cummings and has “fallen out with Johnson and his aides over the response to Covid-19”, The Guardian says.

Unnamed Downing Street sources told journalists in March that Sedwill had failed to get a grip on the coronavirus crisis. However, Cabinet Office insiders told The Guardian that the claims were “shit-stirring” and “absolute crap”.

As Sedwill now prepares to depart Downing Street, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg says that “there has never been any mystery” about Cummings’ desire to change Whitehall.

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.

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What happens next?

The “resignation has been met with anger from former mandarins and comes weeks after other senior civil servants have either left their posts or are set to depart”, The Guardian says. Lord Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, told the paper that Sedwill’s announcement “followed unfair hostile briefings that attempted to blame civil servants for mistakes over coronavirus”.

David Frost, Britain’s chief EU trade negotiator, has been named as the new national security adviser. “A Brexiter who is trusted by the Vote Leave officials in Downing Street”, Frost’s appointment has been “greeted with dismay by some in the military and security services, who felt he was underqualified for the job”, the FT reports.

No. 10 said Sedwill “would be replaced as cabinet secretary by another mandarin”, the newspaper adds.

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