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Theresa May has blasted Boris Johnson for replacing top civil servant Mark Sedwill with an adviser who has “no proven expertise in national security”.
Speaking in the Commons, the former PM made a rare intervention over the controversial appointment of David Frost as national security adviser, saying “expert, independent advice” was vital in government.
The news Sedwill was to resign from his dual role as cabinet secretary and national security adviser sent shockwaves through Westminster on Sunday.
Frost is controversial choice for his replacement. He was originally hired as an aide to the Tory government to help conduct the EU-UK trade talks – a role he will continue to serve in alongside his national security job. Normally, top civil servants are required to be politically neutral.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who was in the Commons to answer an urgent question on the move, gave a speech on Whitehall reform on Saturday.
It comes amid fears a wider shake-up of the civil service by the PM, spearheaded by Dominic Cummings and Gove, will erode the impartiality of the civil service.
Pressing Gove in the Commons, May praised Sedwill’s “extraordinary public service over many years”, and said: “I served on the National Security Council for nine years, six years as home secretary and three as prime minister.
“During that time, I listened to the expert, independent advice from national security advisers.
“On Saturday, my right honourable friend [Michael Gove] said we must be able to promote those with proven expertise.
“Why then is the new national security adviser a political appointee with no proven expertise in national security?”
Gove also paid tribute to Sedwill and told MPs that Frost will serve as a “special envoy” and that it was “common” for countries to have national security advisers who were political appointees.
He also said it is “entirely appropriate” for the prime minister to choose an adviser “appropriate to the needs of the hour”.
He said: “We have had previous national security advisers, all of them excellent, not all of them necessarily people who were steeped in the security world, some of whom were distinguished diplomats in their own right.
“David Frost is a distinguished diplomat in his own right and it is entirely appropriate that the prime minister of the day should choose an adviser appropriate to the needs of the hour.”
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds also took the government to task over the “political” appointment.
He said: “The first duty of any government is to keep people safe and in carrying out that duty any government should have objective and at times challenging advice from its national security adviser.
“And it’s why making a political appointment takes this government into such dangerous territory.”
A search has begun to replace Sedwill as cabinet secretary. On Monday, education secretary Gavin Williamson did not deny Johnson was seeking a Brexiteer.
Gove denied a claim by SNP MP Margaret Ferrier that the civil service is a “toxic workplace environment” . It comes after US ambassador Kim Darroch resigned in 2019 following a leak of diplomatic cables in which he had been critical of Donald Trump’s administration.
Top Home Office civil servant Philip Rutnam, meanwhile, left in February, claiming there had been a “vicious and orchestrated” campaign against him in home secretary Priti Patel’s department.
“I think it is only fair that I should record that far from there being any sort of toxicity, the environment in which our civil servants work is one characterised by their determination to put public service first and for that I thank them,” said Gove.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.