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A crisis – and a PM – that even the head of the civil service couldn’t control | Politics News

An interesting side note of Lord Sedwill’s evidence to the COVID inquiry on Wednesday was how cabinet secretaries attune themselves to a prime minister’s way of working.

When asked about Boris Johnson’s decision-making, and whether it resembled – as others have claimed – a trolley, he told the hearing this was how Mr Johnson had always operated.

During Brexit, he added, the PM would veer between being “gung-ho for a no deal” and “reflective with me about finding a landing zone for a deal” – and that’s how he came to a view.

“It was exhausting for those in his inner circle,” said Lord Sedwill. “It was my job to make it work.”

Politics live: Johnson team were like ‘wild animals’, COVID inquiry hears

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Sedwill sorry for ‘chicken pox’ comment

The problem during COVID was that the calculations were constantly changing, the ramifications enormous, and the government was struggling to catch up.

Lord Sedwill was not overtly critical of Mr Johnson, but instead focused his disapproval on other ministers and advisers.

He was also candid that he failed to appreciate the severity of COVID until, what he now realises was, too late.

The former chief adviser in Number 10, Dominic Cummings, has characterised the peer as not “having a scooby”.

Lord Sedwill said it was his job to keep the show on the road, rather than telling everyone “we are doomed and everyone is useless”.

But he conceded that, on 12 March 2020, he had wrongly spoken of “chicken pox parties” as an analogy to explain the herd immunity strategy – to the apparent horror of No 10 staff.

The then prime minister seemed to prefer small meetings, but some, Lord Sedwill thought, were ridiculously small for decisions of this magnitude.

When Mr Cummings suggested in an email, dated 11 March 2020, that he wanted the director of communications Lee Cain or himself to chair a key meeting with Mr Johnson “so we are in position to answer Qs properly for the PM at 9”, Lord Sedwill responded angrily.

The senior civil servant wrote: “We are not running a dictatorship here and the PM is not taking nationally significant decisions with a bunch of No10 SpAds (special advisers) and no ministers, no operational experts and no scientists.

“If necessary, I will take over the 8.15 slot and chair a daily meeting myself.”

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Cummings says PM was known as a ‘trolley’

In one moment of frustration, Lord Sedwill confided in the government’s chief scientist, Sir Patrick Vallance, that the prime minister’s advisers – who he blamed for hostile briefings against him – were “brutal and useless”.

When Simon Case – then permanent secretary in Number 10, but later Lord Sedwill’s successor in the civil service – sent him a message saying they were “absolutely feral” and like “taming animals”, he replied: “I have the bite marks [to prove it]”.

But the former civil servant’s most critical remarks were reserved for the then health secretary Matt Hancock who, he said, was a “big problem” during the spring and summer of that first year of the pandemic.

Lord Sedwill doubted the minister’s truthfulness about the progress on testing, and took the side of local mayors, arguing with him about local lockdowns.

He claimed he went as far as he could in telling Mr Johnson that the health secretary should be sacked in the summer of 2020, although the prime minister has said this was not the message he received.

Mr Hancock stayed, and Mr Cummings and the advisers would go on to outlast Lord Sedwill, who left in the later summer of 2020 as a second wave of COVID was beginning.

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