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

PUBLISHED: 15:01 19 June 2020 | UPDATED: 18:06 19 June 2020

Sir Simon McDonald will step down as permanent under secretary and head of the diplomatic service at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in August; House of Commons/PA Wire

Sir Simon McDonald will step down as permanent under secretary and head of the diplomatic service at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in August; House of Commons/PA Wire

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A top foreign office civil servant has been forced to resign after Downing Street told him he had to go as part of a government shake-up of Whitehall institutions.

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Sir Simon McDonald told staff at the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO), where he is the most senior official, that No. 10 would find a new replacement to lead the department.

Prime minister Boris Johnson announced earlier this week that the Foreign Office would merge with the Department for International Development (DfID) and form a new “super“ body.

To be called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), it will oversee the UK’s efforts abroad and on the international stage.

Commenting on the decision, Sir Simon said it was something that he “fully respected”, adding that he will have completed five years as PUS (permanent under-secretary) in the FCO when he steps down at the end of August.

The mandarin’s removal from office comes less than two months after he was forced to U-turn after telling MPs the UK took a “political decision” not to join the European Union’s procurement scheme to source medical equipment during the coronavirus crisis.

There were reports Sir Simon was then “leaned on” by Downing Street to release a statement only hours after giving evidence to the Commons foreign affairs committee.

He later declared he had been “incorrect” and reverted to the government’s defence that the scheme was not initially joined because of a “communication problem”.

Political pundits claim that Johnson has wanted to force out the experienced diplomat, seeing him as an internal Brexit critic.

Defending the merger, Sir Simon said: “I believe passionately that FCDO is the right move for our future overseas effort; the FCO’s merger with DfID is the culmination of my time here,” he added.

“But a new effort needs new leadership. Whoever that is will take on a simply wonderful job.”

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said his premature departure raised serious questions.

He said: “Sir Simon McDonald’s premature departure from the FCO will raise many questions.

“McDonald has been a constant voice of reason and his absence will be noticed at a time when the government appear intent on undermining the UK’s position on the world stage.

“The government’s bully boy approach to the civil service is dangerous and counterproductive at such a precarious moment in our country’s history.”

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who will lead the FCDO, praised Sir Simon for his years of service.

“Sir Simon is one of the finest diplomats of his generation, a dedicated public servant who helped guide the FCO during a remarkable period of change in the world.

“He can be immensely proud of his record of having served Britain across the globe from Berlin to Washington DC.”

The prime minister has thanked him for his “strong leadership”.

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