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Sir Mark Sedwill exit: Whitehall union accuses Number 10 of ‘self-defeating’ and ‘corrosive’ briefings against top official

Sir Mark Sedwill exit: Whitehall union accuses Number 10 of ‘self-defeating’ and ‘corrosive’ briefings against top official

The Cabinet Office confirmed that Sir Mark will stand down in September. (PA)

5 min read

Downing Street has been accused of “self-defeating” and “corrosive” behaviour as it was confirmed that the UK’s top civil servant is to quit in September as part of a major Whitehall shake-up.

The FDA, which represents senior officials, said those around Number 10 had  “sought to undermine“ Sir Mark Sedwill, who will step down as cabinet secretary, head of the civil service and national security adviser in the coming months.

Labour meanwhile accused the Government of being “preoccupied with reshuffling Whitehall” amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sir Mark’s exit, confirmed in a statement from the Cabinet Office but first reported by the Sunday Telegraph, comes just days after the Prime Minister’s top adviser Dominic Cummings said a “hard rain” will fall on the civil service as a result of its handling of the crisis.

And it follows a major speech by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove criticising the “group think” and “metropolitan” outlook of official decision-makers in government. 

Both men are longstanding critics of the way the civil service has traditionally been run and have called for more outside experience to be brought in to Whitehall to change its culture.

But, responding to the announcement, FDA general secretary Dave Penman said Sir Mark had been “one of the outstanding public servants of his generation”.

And he warned: “Whatever emerges as fact from the series of briefings that have sought to undermine Sir Mark’s position, this government will emerge weaker as a result.”

The union boss added: “If Sir Mark no longer has the confidence of the Prime Minister, for whatever reason, that is one thing. 

“It can be dealt with in a grown-up way, finding a solution that suits both parties, rather than excluding someone who has dedicated their life to public service and has excelled at every role they’ve been asked to fill.

“Instead, Number 10 - or those around it - has sought to undermine Sir Mark and the leadership of the civil service, with a series of anonymous briefings against him over many months. 

“Not only is it a self-defeating and corrosive tactic, it’s also a cowardly one, safe in the knowledge that those who are briefed against are unable to publicly respond.”

Mr Penman said: “The danger here is that Number 10 may have won this particular round of their power play, but at what cost? Running government and delivering public services requires the talent and enthusiasm of thousands of leaders and hundreds of thousands of committed public servants, all of whom look to ministers, and ultimately the Prime Minister, for leadership and inspiration. 

“No CEO or Chair of a private company would act in this way and expect their organisation to thrive. A government that so publicly covets the best of the private sector on delivery could do with learning exactly what good leadership looks like: it certainly isn’t this.”


Labour also pounced on the departure, with Shadow Cabinet Office minister Helen Hayes heaping praise on the “dedicated” public servant.

And she said: “On the day it was revealed millions of jobs across the country could be under threat in the coming months, it is very concerning that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are preoccupied with reshuffling Whitehall.”

Layla Moran, who is running for the Liberal Democrat leadership, said Sir Mark was “being scapegoated by the Prime Minister for the disasters of the last few months”.

She added: “These include the awful handling of the coronavirus crisis, the faltering Brexit deal talks and the failure to discipline Dominic Cummings. Rather than facing up to his own failures, the Prime Minister is blaming the Cabinet Secretary. 

"All this bodes very badly for a potential politicisation of the civil service. The Prime Minister must urgently rule this out. Many people are deeply fearful of a league of mini-Cummings', placed throughout the civil service, which could ruin it forever."

But, speaking to the BBC's Westminster Hour on Sunday night, Conservative deputy chairman Lee Rowley said Sir Mark's exit was "part of the natural process of government".

"We have a huge amount of respect in the party, as every party does, for the great work that civil servants do across the country, on a day-in, day-out basis. And that’s an absolute given, but it’s also appropriate that you take – you pause, you think through how you want to change the structures, how you want to approach things, because structures and frameworks matter, the way in which we deliver things matters," he said.


The fresh Whitehall row comes as the Prime Minister prepares to make a major speech setting out how the Government hopes to rebuild the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

And it follows a wide-ranging speech by Mr Gove in recent days in which the Cabinet minister criticised what he argues is a lack of commercial, mathematical and scientific experience in the ranks of the civil service.

“Government departments recruit in their own image, are influenced by the think tanks and lobbyists who breathe the same London air and are socially rooted in assumptions which are inescapably metropolitan," Mr Gove said.

"An important part of bringing government closer to people is making sure we have not just a wider spread of decision-making across the country but a broader and deeper pool of decision-makers.

"Group think can affect any organisation - the tendency to coalesce around a cosy consensus, resist challenge, look for information which confirms existing biases and reject rigorous testing of delivery."

Making clear the scale of Government reform he is seeking to achieve, Mr Gove drew parallels with US President Franklin D Roosevelt, whose New Deal agenda helped the United States recover from the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Mr Gove said the US statesman had “recognised that faced with a crisis that had shaken faith in Government, it was not simply a change of personnel and rhetoric that was required but a change in structure, ambition and organisation”.

And he asked: “Why shouldn’t some of the policymakers intimately involved in reshaping our approach to energy and the decarbonisation of our economy be in Teesside, Humberside and Aberdeen? Shouldn’t those thinking about this sector be part of the communities whose jobs depend on getting these decisions right?”

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