Mark Sedwill’s future at the centre of Boris Johnson’s administration is under threat according to cabinet ministers and senior Whitehall officials, who predict the influential head of the civil service could leave his job later this year.
Sir Mark, who has held the post of cabinet secretary since 2018, has been “unhappy” during the past few months, according to senior civil servants, amid growing tensions inside Downing Street over its handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Despite facing calls to resign over his trip to Durham during the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown, Mr Johnson’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, remains determined to shake up the civil service. He told colleagues this week that “fundamental problems in the Whitehall machine” had been exposed by the pandemic and that many officials accepted the need for radical change.
Although Mr Cummings is the prime minister’s most influential political adviser, Sir Mark holds a highly powerful position at the heart of the British state. Not only does he head the UK’s impartial civil service, he is also the prime minister’s national security adviser. The two roles, uniquely, were combined under him.
This week, senior government officials have told the Financial Times they believe Sir Mark’s days are numbered and that he could go in the autumn, when Mr Johnson attempts to reset his government and focus on a post-Covid, post-Brexit agenda.
Asked whether Sir Mark would leave before the end of the year, the Cabinet Office declined to comment, issuing only a terse statement: “The cabinet secretary continues to work closely with his senior team to ensure the government receives the best advice.”
Senior Whitehall officials believe Sir Mark, who has increasingly found himself at odds with Mr Cummings, could be a scapegoat for the failings in areas such as testing and tracing capacity and equipment supply.
“Mark has been at the heart of all the decision making, the good and the bad. I can’t see how he escapes a lot of the blame when the inevitable inquiry begins,” one well-placed official said.
One Tory MP who knows Sir Mark well said the mandarin would fight his corner: “I wouldn’t want to be in a knife fight with him in a phone box.”
In recent days rumours have been circulating at the most senior levels of the civil service that Sir Mark’s departure may be imminent. But others believe his departure is likely to coincide with a potential cabinet reshuffle later this year and the Johnson government’s wider agenda to reform the civil service.
One senior cabinet minister told a colleague this week, “we’re not expecting any major changes in government until November, when we’ll know if there is going to be a Brexit deal or not. It would make sense for Sedwill’s departure to coincide with that. It feels when not if.”
Mr Cummings has long advocated the need to fundamentally shake up the civil service. Mr Johnson’s top aide this week warned special advisers — political appointments who are hired to support ministers — that a “hard rain is coming” to Whitehall and the coronavirus outbreak would expedite his plans to reform the civil service.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister and a close ally of Mr Cummings, is central to these reform efforts. He wants to sharpen the government’s focus on three main areas: EU exit preparations, strengthening the four-nation United Kingdom and public sector reforms, but his allies say no “big bang” reform of government structures is imminent.
However, one senior government official said Mr Cummings and Mr Gove were determined to reform the civil service and learn the lessons of Covid failings: “They are determined not to let a crisis go to waste.”
Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government think-tank, said: “The civil service takes a lot of heat in times of crisis.” Referring to tensions with Sir Mark, she said: “It’s easy for everyone, including the prime minister, to think that person has the ability to pull more levers than he or she actually has.”
Sir Mark’s predecessor, Jeremy Heywood, was an old Treasury hand with deep links in the City of London, whereas Sir Mark comes from a national security background. “When Mark goes, the two jobs will be split again,” said one Whitehall official, referring to his other role as national security adviser. “Hardly anybody apart from Mark thinks it is a good idea to combine those two jobs.”
Before Mr Johnson’s arrival at Number 10 last summer, Sir Mark — a confidant and appointment of former prime minister Theresa May — was distrusted by the current prime minister’s allies and was expected to be moved to another position, such as US ambassador.
For a time, however, political appointees and officials inside Downing Street were working well together. But the friction has returned in the past few months due to the coronavirus crisis as Britain’s response has come under consistent attack for being too slow footed.
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The appointment of Simon Case, a 41-year-old civil servant, last month as permanent secretary in Number 10, was an attempt by Mr Johnson to strengthen the government’s grip on the crisis but also to “clip the wings” of Sir Mark, according to several senior officials.
Mr Case took a secondment from advising the Duke of Cambridge to oversee the government’s coronavirus response. The prime minister’s confidence in Mr Case was confirmed when he was asked to review the 2m social distancing rule, which will be relaxed on July 4. Few in Number 10 expect him to return to royal duties in the near future.
But Mr Case’s arrival in Number 10 has exacerbated tensions with Sir Mark, according to government insiders, who said there was “significant confusion and tension over who is responsible for what”. Another government aide said: “The situation with Simon and Mark isn’t sustainable.”
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