Sir Simon McDonald: Top Foreign Office civil servant 'to retire early next year' amid department shake-up

June 17, 2020

The top Foreign Office mandarin has told staff he plans to retire early next year amid a controversial shake-up of Britain's global footprint, according to sources.

Sir Simon McDonald is understood to have said in a call that he would stay on as permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) as it merges with the Department for International Development (DfID) in a major restructuring.

He would then take on the role of top civil servant at what will be called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office when it opens in September.

However, Sir Simon is thought to have said he plans to step down early next year to make way for a successor, the sources said.

Asked about the prospect of Sir Simon leaving, a Foreign Office source said issues surrounding the merger were very much ongoing and nothing had been decided or announced.

But - according to the other sources - Sir Simon told staff the job of permanent secretary at the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is set to be advertised from the autumn.

If the departure of the highly-experienced civil servant is confirmed it would be an earlier exit than had previously been anticipated.

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Sir Simon had in the past articulated to colleagues a desire to serve for an extra two years once his current five-year term at the FCO finishes in September, sources said.

The apparent change of heart is being interpreted by some as a sign that possibly Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had not indicated they would like him to stay on for longer, one diplomatic source said.

There has been speculation in the past that Sir Simon may not be granted a longer term because - like many diplomats during the Brexit referendum - he was seen as someone who had been in favour of remaining in the European Union, according to the source.

He also scored an unfortunate own goal in April when he gave confused evidence to a committee of MPs about Britain's decision not to join an EU scheme to buy ventilators when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Responding to questions from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Sir Simon claimed the decision had been political, triggering outrage among MPs.

Hours later, he backtracked, issuing an extraordinary letter to the chair of the committee in which he said his evidence had been wrong.

But Sir Simon has enjoyed a hugely successful career during 38 years of diplomatic service.

He has been posted around the world, including to Germany, Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel. Sir Simon was ambassador to Berlin from 2010 to 2015 and ambassador to Israel from 2003 to 2006.

His time as permanent secretary at the FCO included Mr Johnson's stint as foreign secretary.

The prospect of musical chairs at the helm of the diplomatic service emerged after Mr Johnson announced the scrapping of DfID on Tuesday and the merger of foreign policy with international development under one "super department".

Such a move had long-been speculated but it received a hostile response from three previous prime ministers - David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair - as well as from past international development secretaries and the charity sector.

They warned that the poorest would suffer if Britain's £15bn aid budget - the third largest in the world - starts to prioritise overseas projects in the UK national interest over those that are of the greatest humanitarian need.

But Mr Johnson said the new ministry would be of "huge benefit" to Britain's overseas aid mission. He also assured MPs that a commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on international aid would remain in place.

The definition of what constitutes aid, however, is under review.

The FCO declined to comment.

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