No 10 accused of making Mark Sedwill the ‘fall guy’ for bungled coronavirus response

PUBLISHED: 09:54 29 June 2020 | UPDATED: 09:58 29 June 2020

Boris Johnson (centre), alongside new chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (second right), cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill (second left), work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey (right) and health secretary Matt Hancock (left) during the first Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Matt Dunham/PA Wire.

Boris Johnson (centre), alongside new chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (second right), cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill (second left), work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey (right) and health secretary Matt Hancock (left) during the first Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Matt Dunham/PA Wire.

MPs and former civil servants have come out swinging against Downing Street’s decision to oust Sir Mark Sedwill as cabinet secretary, accusing it of making him the “fall guy” for mistakes made during the coronavirus crisis.

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Sir Mark will leave his role as one of the most powerful civil servants in September and is expected to be replaced by Vote Leave supporter Simon Case, who became Number 10’s permanent secretary in May.

The former diplomat will also step back from his post as national security advisor - a position which will be filled by Brexit negotiator David Frost.

The leadership shake-up has drawn the ire of MPs and former senior government officials who accuse Downing Street of forcing Sir Mark’s exit with the end goal of blaming him for mistakes made during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Bob Kerslake, a former head of the Civil Service, along with the civil servants’ union accused Number 10 “or those around it” of working to “undermine” the ex-diplomat.

Speaking to the Guardian, Lord Kerslake said: “I fear from some of the press briefing that had obviously gone on that the Civil Service is being made the fall guy for mistakes made in the handling of the pandemic.”

Opposition MPs also pointed the finger at the prime minister’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings, suggesting he played a role in the former Afghanistan ambassador being forced out as head of the Civil Service.

Cummings is rumoured to have had a difficult relationship with Sir Mark, who was appointed cabinet secretary in 2018 by Theresa May, with the former prime minister allowing him to unite the role with his national security adviser job.

Other papers report Sir Mark’s departure was sealed after his relationship with the prime minster deteriorated beyond repair. The Times writes that relations soured permanently when the former Whitehall mandarin told Boris Johnson, in no uncertain terms, that he was ultimately responsible for getting Britain out of lockdown.

According to the Telegraph, Johnson is keen to have a Brexiteer in the role.

The move comes after Michael Gove, the minister for the Cabinet Office who has been tasked with overhauling Whitehall structures, used a speech on Saturday to call for the government to “be less southern, less middle class” and “closer to the 52% who voted to Leave and more understanding of why”.

Sir Mark’s exit follows on from a number of changes at the top of the Civil Service in recent months.

The Foreign Office’s most senior civil servant Sir Simon McDonald - seen as a Brexit critic - was told this month he had to step down before it was merged with the Department for International Development (DfID).

MORE: Top civil servant forced out by No 10 after contradicting government on EU COVID-19 schemes

Meanwhile, Sir Philip Rutnam, who was the Home Office’s permanent secretary, quit earlier this year after accusing home secretary Priti Patel of a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him.

As part of agreeing to depart in September, Johnson has nominated his outgoing Cabinet Secretary for a life peerage, and has also asked Sir Mark to lead a new G7 panel on global economic security as the UK prepares to assume the presidency next year.

Frost has also been nominated by the prime minister for a life peerage in the House of Lords.

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