Covid and Afghanistan expose ‘inadequate’ National Security Council – but prime minister poised to attend far fewer discussions
The prime minister is accused of overseeing an “inadequate” Whitehall system that lacks clear lines of responsibility and is unable to cope with more than one major crisis at a time.
Furthermore, he is poised to slash the time he spends leading National Security Council (NSC) meetings by around two-thirds under looming changes, says a committee of MPs and peers.
The Joint Committee on National Security Strategy brands the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan “a systemic failure”, while noting that the NSC’s structures were abandoned when the Covid pandemic struck.
Yet the council’s vital role was underlined by a warning from one expert witness of a one-in-six chance of an “existential catastrophe” over the next 100 years – ranging from climate change to nuclear war.
The report calls the NSC shake-up – drafted by national security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove – “a retrograde step that suggests a more casual approach to national security”.
“It is the prime minister’s personal investment of time and authority that lends credibility to the NSC and its cross-government structures,” it states.
“Yet, under the new system, the prime minister will spend roughly 65 per cent less time in NSC meetings than under the previous practice of weekly meetings when parliament is in session.”
Margaret Beckett, the committee’s chair, disse: “The whole point of the National Security Council is that it is supposed to prepare for, and act upon, a long-term view of our national security risks. It should be above the hurly-burly of daily concerns.
“But when two events – the Covid-19 pandemic and Afghanistan – demonstrated yet again what a dangerous world we now live in, weaknesses in the structures of the National Security Council were exposed.”
The NSC, established in 2010 de David Cameron, has held weekly meetings between senior ministers and defence and intelligence chiefs, chaired by the prime minister.
But Sir Stephen’s changes will see Mr Johnson attend only around half of its meetings, and will risk leaving the NSC unable to “tackle the most pressing issues”, the report warns.
It calls for improvements to ensure the NSC has clear lines of responsibility and accountability as well as a role in allocating security funding, and that the council is able to work with the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The committee also recommends re-establishing a ministerial committee for managing risks and resilience, and designating chief risk officers for national security in each department.
The role of the Cabinet Office’s team of analysts should be strengthened to feed the NSC assessments of the full range of threats and hazards, it says, adding that the government needs to ensure “external and diverse input into NSC discussions to guard against ‘groupthink’.”