Speaking Truth to Power: The Problem with Prime Minister Johnson’s New National Security Adviser

Courtesy of Smuconlaw / Wikimedia Commons.

As a new national security adviser is appointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the UK’s first NSA reflects on the duties and burdens of the job.

‘Speak to the business, master Secretary, why are we met in council?’
– Shakespeare, Henry VIII

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to appoint his chief EU negotiator and former special adviser as the next national security adviser (NSA) was a surprise. Coming in the middle of the Integrated Review, this sudden change has prompted debate about David Frost’s suitability for the role and what it means for Johnson’s approach to this vital area of policy.

Underlying these questions is a more basic one – what does an NSA actually do? As with any job at the heart of government, the precise shape and weight of the role will reflect the priorities and working style of the prime minister of the day. But the broad parameters will not have changed much since David Cameron invited me on his arrival in Downing Street in 2010 to become the UK’s first NSA and to organise a National Security Council (NSC). 

The Concept of a National Security Council

The introduction of an NSC system was not a revolution. Since the Committee of Imperial Defence was established by the Balfour government in 1902, Britain has had a highly effective system for war planning and coordination. This was honed in two world wars and, in the postwar decades, all prime ministers had a Cabinet committee dealing with overseas and defence affairs. But by the time Tony Blair made the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, there was a perception that the system had become less rigorous and more informal. That was, at least, the conclusion of the Butler inquiry into the handling of intelligence in the run-up to that fateful decision. The inquiry reported that they were ‘concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the government’s procedures … reduces the scope for informed political judgement’.

When he became leader of the opposition in 2005, Cameron pledged that, if elected, he would introduce a fully fledged NSC system. His aims were to tighten up decision-making and improve coordination across government in response to the widening array of national security threats, including mass-casualty terrorism, cyber attacks and disruptive events such as floods and public health emergencies. 

That was how I found myself walking across Downing Street in May 2010, having packed up my office in the FCO, to set up a new national security apparatus. Although not a revolution in terms of Whitehall organisation, Cameron was determined that the NSC would mark a clear change in approach. He insisted on regular meetings and used them to make real decisions, in the presence of senior advisers including the intelligence heads and chief of the defence staff, and in an atmosphere of challenge and open debate to avoid groupthink. 

The NSA’s Roles

The NSA role had – and in my view should still have – three main elements. First, to act as secretary to the NSC, analogous to the Cabinet Secretary’s role organising the work of the Cabinet. The NSA is responsible for setting the agenda – including persuading the prime minister to accept a balanced diet of subjects on the NSC agenda. This includes not just the most urgent crises or the prime minister’s pet projects, but issues that are a priority for other ministers on the NSC as well. 

I saw the role as being not just ‘the prime minister’s national security adviser’, as the announcement of Frost’s appointment termed it, but working for the whole council, ensuring that all members got some air time and always avoiding coming between the prime minister and individual ministers. Having decided on the agenda, the NSA has to ensure that the NSC gets well-prepared papers, and that action points from meetings are followed up. I convened a group of the permanent secretaries of all departments represented on the NSC to ensure quality control of papers and proper implementation of decisions. This collegial role was important in getting the NSC embedded into the Whitehall system and minimising friction. 

The second role is to be the prime minister’s closest adviser on foreign, defence and security issues, at their side at all the relevant meetings, doing the overseas travelling with the boss and representing the UK in the international club of NSAs. That meant building relationships with all the key foreign counterparts, starting with the US NSA. 

The third element was to lead the sizeable National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Office. Apart from running the NSC apparatus, there were small teams to give the prime minister ideas and advice across the range of NSC business, and a unit to provide a central focus for the intelligence community, particularly when it came to assembling a collective budget bid to the Treasury. An important innovation, which had been part of the Conservatives’ plans in opposition, was to bring the Civil Contingencies Secretariat responsible for resilience planning into the National Security Secretariat as part of raising the profile of this issue. One of the top four national security priorities we set out in 2010 was the risk of a pandemic. 

Problems Facing Us Now

I found that this added up to (more than) a full-time job. That is why I considered it a mistake for Sir Mark Sedwill to keep the NSA role when he took over as Cabinet Secretary in 2018. It’s against the background of this job description that the appointment of Frost should be considered. 

Three problems should be taken into account:

  1. Frost does not have a background in defence, intelligence or internal security work. In his FCO career, he specialised mainly in EU affairs. Yet, the NSA has to be able to win the confidence of those who have spent their careers in the most secret areas of government and to represent their interests authoritatively when dealing at close quarters with the prime minister, other NSC ministers and foreign counterparts. At the same time that Michael Gove was speaking in his recent Ditchley Park lecture about the need for public servants to show ‘the mastery of deep knowledge’ in their subject areas, Frost’s appointment seemed to point in the opposite direction.
  2. His main credential for the role is that he is a trusted political adviser to the prime minister. That will be a further problem in winning the trust of the national security community. Previous NSAs have been politically neutral civil servants. There will always be an ambiguity as to whether Frost is giving his own political advice or reflecting the dispassionate judgement of professionals.
  3. Finally, there is the fact that he is to become Lord Frost. He deserves congratulations for the honour, but it introduces another layer of confusion. Will he become a minister or speak for the government in the House of Lords? How could he be a backbencher and simultaneously one of the prime minister’s closest advisers? Or perhaps he will take a leave of absence and only take his seat when he leaves office?

Gove was right. Those advising ministers on national security do need the mastery of deep knowledge at a time when the government is formulating a new national strategy in a dangerous world.  But the message of Frost’s appointment is that the prime minister accords absolute priority not to expertise and experience, but to political loyalty among his closest advisers. 

That is not a reassuring conclusion. 

Lord Ricketts GCMG GCVO was the UK’s first National Security Adviser, as well as, previously, British Permanent Representative to NATO, and subsequently Ambassador to France and Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office. He is a Trustee of RUSI.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


The Lord Ricketts GCMG GCVO


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