Lord McDonald: The former civil servant who ‘never saw eye to eye’ with Boris Johnson

·4 min read
Boris Johnson was suspicious of Lord McDonald when the pair worked together at the Foreign Office - Will Oliver/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Boris Johnson was suspicious of Lord McDonald when the pair worked together at the Foreign Office - Will Oliver/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A former civil servant publicly accusing a Prime Minister of lying is a rare event, but Baron McDonald of Salford is unlikely to have had any pangs of guilt about calling out the man who effectively ended his career.

During his time as Boris Johnson’s Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, Lord McDonald - or Sir Simon, as he was then - was suspected by Mr Johnson of running a spying operation and orchestrating damaging leaks about the then foreign secretary.

Mr Johnson believed that media stories accusing him of being lazy and failing to attend properly to his red boxes of ministerial papers were being briefed by Lord McDonald’s department. When the Foreign Office merged with the Department for International Development, Mr Johnson, by then Prime Minister, saw to it that Lord McDonald was squeezed out.

So when he had the chance to expose Mr Johnson’s Downing Street operation for what he says is a lie over the Chris Pincher affair - an undeniably important intervention - he is unlikely to have spent much time wrestling with his conscience.

“They never saw eye to eye,” said one former minister. “Simon never made a secret of the fact that he was a strong Remainer and he has always had big issues with Brexit.”

One Whitehall insider said: “The Foreign Office was very fractious because of the tension between Simon and Boris.

“Simon took on a junior civil servant who Boris was convinced he had hired to spy on him, and Boris ended up firing the guy because he thought he was effectively an agent of Theresa May’s Number 10 operation.

“Boris thought Simon and others were constantly trying to undermine him by leaking stories about him being lazy and so on. It was a very difficult working environment because the civil servants never forgave Boris for Brexit.

“So it does feel a little bit as though Simon has been waiting three years to get his revenge, and has finally had his chance, notwithstanding the fact that what he says may well be true.”

In March last year Lord McDonald, 61, was interviewed by the think tank UK In a Changing Europe, when he said he was one of three senior civil servants on a Downing Street “s— list” who were “all for the high jump”.

He said that he was “one of those that were soaked” by former Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings’ threat of a “hard rain” falling on Whitehall.

In September 2020, Lord McDonald took early retirement after Mr Johnson made it clear to him that he did not want him to stay in his job when the Foreign Office merged with DfID. Mr Johnson explained to him that it was a new department, and that “you are the essence of Foreign Office … you will always look to them like Foreign Office. I need a new person from the start”.

Mr Johnson softened the blow by giving Lord McDonald a peerage, not an automatic appointment for retiring civil servants. But it has not prevented him from criticising the Prime Minister since then.

Lord McDonald introducing Boris Johnson to Foreign Office staff when the latter was made foreign secretary in 2016 - Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Lord McDonald introducing Boris Johnson to Foreign Office staff when the latter was made foreign secretary in 2016 - Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

He told UK In a Changing Europe that the appointment of Mr Johnson as foreign secretary had come as a “surprise” to him. He criticised Mr Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament in 2019 and to threaten to break international laws in the Internal Market Bill.

Lord McDonald, a grammar school boy from Salford, Greater Manchester, joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1982. He served as ambassador to Israel from 2003-06 under Sir Tony Blair, as well as ambassador to Germany from 2010-2015 under David Cameron.

In September 2015, he became the Permanent Under-Secretary at the FCO and Head of the Diplomatic Service, on a five-year contract that was not renewed when it expired.

The father of four is married to Olivia Wright, the daughter of Baron Wright of Richmond, one of his predecessors as Permanent Under-Secretary at the FCO during the Thatcher government. In September, he will take up a new job as master of Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Lord McDonald said: “I never briefed against Mr Johnson when he was foreign secretary, not once. And the only time when I might be said to have briefed against him as Prime Minister is today, when I did so openly.”

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