Boris Johnson reverses national security advisor appointment – the ‘war on Whitehall’ is over

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Boris Johnson signs the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the EU, as David Frost looks on – LEON NEAL/AFP

The Prime Minister has reversed plans to make Lord Frost his national security advisor and appointed a Ministry of Defence mandarin, signalling an end to the “hard rain” on Whitehall.

Boris Johnson announced that the peer, who led his negotiations on the UK’s exit from the EU and the subsequent bilateral trade deal, would instead become a representative for Brexit and international policy.

The move followed a backlash when Lord Frost was first unveiled as Mr Johnson’s choice for one of the most senior security jobs in Government last June, with opponents complaining about his lack of experience in the domain.

Eyebrows had also been raised at the decision to appoint a political adviser rather than a career civil servant. Critics pointed at the time to the influence of Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s then chief adviser, who is said to have warned a “hard rain” would fall on Whitehall.

The decision on Friday to award the prestigious role to Sir Stephen Lovegrove, 54, permanent secretary at the MoD, was viewed as the latest proof that the “war on Whitehall” has ended following Mr Cummings’ departure from Government last month.

Sir Stephen, 54, is expected to start at the end of March in the role, which entails advising the Prime Minister and Cabinet on international and domestic security matters.

He will work closely with his newly-appointed American counterpart Jake Sullivan. Commentators noted on Friday that Mr Sullivan has been a staunch critic of Brexit, which would have put him at ideological odds with Lord Frost, an ardent supporter.

One Government source said of Downing Street’s decision to switch appointments for national security adviser just days before Lord Frost was due to start: “It’s gone from ‘shake up’ to ‘standard’.

“Everyone reacted at the time with such horror. That’s gone away and now the conventional choice has won the day. This is the old civil service machinery reasserting control.”

The insider added that there was a clear logic to Lord Frost taking up his new role. “Our relationship with the EU is going to be our biggest relationship, so it makes sense to have someone with detailed knowledge focusing on that,” they said.

Rolling negotiations over those elements of trade not covered by the UK-EU treaty agreed on Christmas Eve are still ongoing, which Lord Frost is expected to oversee.

Mr Johnson said in a statement: “I am hugely grateful to Lord Frost for his herculean efforts in securing a deal with the EU, and I am thrilled that he has agreed to be my representative for Brexit and international policy as we seize the opportunities from our departure from the EU.”

He said Sir Stephen brought “a wealth of experience from across Whitehall” and would help deliver the Government’s vision for the UK in the world.

 Stephen Lovegrove greets Gavin Williamson outside the Ministry of Defence in London - David Mirzoeff/PA Archive 
Stephen Lovegrove greets Gavin Williamson outside the Ministry of Defence in London – David Mirzoeff/PA Archive

Downing Street said Mr Johnson reversed his decision to make Lord Frost NSA in order to “maximise the opportunities” for the UK after Brexit, adding: “He will also work on other international trade and economic issues.”

The Prime Minister’s spokesman dismissed the idea that Mr Johnson thought Sir Stephen a better fit for the role, saying: “I don’t accept that.”

Number 10 confirmed that Lord Frost will report to the Prime Minister in his new role, with the peer continuing in his “leave of absence” from the House of Lords.

Lord Frost said he was “delighted” with his new appointment, adding: “We have huge opportunities to boost our wealth and define what we stand for as a country internationally.”

On Friday night his allies rejected suggestions the move was a demotion, adding he had long wanted to get more involved in foreign policy and shaping opportunities presented by Brexit.

They added that discussions over the change had taken place in recent weeks but had been kept a tightly guarded secret.

He is expected to work with Sir Stephen on finalising the Integrated Review in foreign, defence and security policy, which is expected to be published in the coming months.

In his new role, he is also expected to remain within the Prime Minister’s close inner circle of senior advisers in Number 10, and will take an active role in better aligning the UK’s foreign policy with its commercial objectives.

Sir Stephen’s successor at the MoD, where heavy cuts will be needed to balance the books despite Mr Johnson awarding the department a multi-year settlement worth an extra £16 billion, is yet to be announced.

Downing Street is understood to be looking at private sector candidates. One source said that Kate Bingham was viewed as a leading option, following her much-applauded success leading the UK vaccine taskforce. This was denied by a senior Government source.

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