21 February 2019

The foreign policy establishment has raised eyebrows at new Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill’s decision to stay on as National Security Adviser. That is taking aim at the wrong target, argues Jill Rutter

Sir Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary since October, recently explained why he was continuing to double-hat as National Security Adviser. And the reason he gave was Brexit. In an interview for Civil Service Quarterly magazine, he argued that it is “critically important that we bring together… our national capabilities, including economic, security, social and the rest.”Sedwill is right on the need for a coherent approach to economic and security policy

Whitehall obviously needs to work together, particularly across the economic and security spheres, when negotiating the new economic and security partnership with the EU. In other areas, issues are clearly interlinked – just this week the Defence Secretary’s speech on China led to the last-minute cancellation of a trade visit by the Chancellor. Across the piece, the UK will need to balance trade and economic considerations with security and foreign policy ones, for example on trade and cyber threats.

Sedwill also points out that his predecessors have held several roles. Gus O’Donnell combined the role of Cabinet Secretary and head of the Home Civil Service. That was initially split when Sir Jeremy Heywood became Cabinet Secretary, only for him to later take on the Home Civil Service role but with some of the management responsibilities handed to John Manzoni.

Sedwill’s career has been in foreign and security policy, a CV which marks him out following three decades of Cabinet Secretaries with Treasury backgrounds. There is a strong argument for him keeping the NSA role: any new appointment would find themselves with Sedwill breathing down their neck, while there is already a Deputy National Security Adviser to support this part of his job.The centre is now much weakened on domestic and economic policy experience

The loss of Jeremy Heywood does, however, represent a major loss of the centre’s capacity on economic and social policy. That was not explicitly in Heywood’s job description, but for some 20 years he had been involved in formulation of domestic policy and possessed unrivalled grasp and knowledge. He also came from the Treasury, and before moving to No.10 and the Cabinet Office he had worked in both the Chancellor's and Chief Secretary’s offices.

Sedwill’s experience of domestic policy is confined to a posting to the UK Borders Agency and four years as Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. These bring important experience but lack the breadth of policy exposure of his predecessors. In that sense, he also reflects the narrow ministerial experience the Prime Minister can draw on.

Sedwill’s relative lack of expertise is also reflected in No.10 itself, where the Prime Minister appointed Peter Hill as the first non ex-Treasury Principal Private Secretary (PPS) since Sir Robert Armstrong. Again, her PPS’s background is foreign and security issues – reflecting the Prime Minister’s concerns, but also her preference to appoint people she has worked with before (Hill worked in the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism when she was Home Secretary).

The PM needs to appoint a permanent secretary to coordinate domestic policy in the Cabinet Office

To balance the top team, the need is not for the PM to appoint yet another top level securocrat but to bolster the Cabinet Office’s capability on domestic and economic policy. Sarah Healey has been moved from the Brexit negotiations to head of the Economic and Domestic Policy secretariat, but as a Director General. 

As much of the domestic agenda stalls, and the Government prepares for a long overdue spending round, there is a good case for making her role a permanent secretary appointment. This role would report directly to the PM as her domestic affairs adviser, and would see some big-hitting deputies brought in too.   

So critics of Sedwill retaining the NSA post have a point: the top team in the Cabinet Office needs strengthening. But it needs to be strengthened to complement Sedwill’s skills and experience, not duplicate them.

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