Former Prime Minister Theresa May has stayed away from the limelight since departing the Prime Ministerial throne. So her blistering words on Tuesday will have felt like an alarming moment for Boris Johnson and his Government, including poor ole Michael Gove who was the one actually taking the heat from Theresa, possibly not for the first time in his life. Her intervention was not about Covid-19 or tomorrow’s planned re-opening, but about the fate of Sir Mark Sedwill, Britain’s most senior civil servant, who was ousted this week in the latest chapter of the Government vs Civil Service melodrama that will go on and on, regardless of what else is happening in the country.
It has long been known that Johnson, (or perhaps more precisely, Dominic Cummings), didn’t like Sedwill, and removing him is not in itself that surprising or that scandalous. The more brazen bit is that they’ve replaced him in his National Security Adviser role with David Frost, who was a civil servant once upon a time, but was more recently a special adviser to Boris Johnson! Special advisers and civil servants are different beasts. The former bat for the Government and the latter bat for the state, independent of party politics. It is a nuanced difference but an important one, and Governments of both colours have generally stuck to this in the past. Add to the mix that Frost doesn’t have a background in national security, and the whole thing starts to feel even weirder.
Supporters might say it is brave to be bold and not worry about how things ‘used to be done’. But critics will worry that there is an ongoing trend here. Whenever there are significant checks on Number 10s power, they seem to get watered down. The Treasury has been reorganised. There are increasing attempts to undermine the media. And now senior civil servants are being replaced by sympathetic political appointees. This is all without mentioning the scandal of prorogation last year, when even elected MPs were stripped of their powers, at least until the Supreme Court stepped in. Perhaps Lady Hale is going to be replaced next, by Dominic Cummings in a wig…? Ok, that feels unlikely to be fair to the Government, but the trend is still there and it is a concerning one.
Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have a clear vision for how they want things done (such a clear vision that even regular trips to Barnard Castle aren’t needed to test it), and there is nothing wrong with clear vision and direction. But there is something wrong with trying to impose that vision without embracing the debate, conflict and negotiation, which have always been a treasured part of our politics. Frost should be wished all the best in his new role, but we should all hope that he is able to do the job as an independent expert advisor to Boris Johnson, not as the latest person serving under him.