Sir John Sawers said the Brexit debate has left the country deeply divided and damaged the UK’s standing on the world stage, while the political turmoil in Westminster is adding to concerns about the direction the country is heading in.
In an extraordinary intervention, Sir John said the UK could have a prime minister who does “not have the standing that we have become used to in our top leadership”.
The former spymaster’s comments came after reports that Boris Johnson had classified material withheld from him while he was foreign secretary – a claim dismissed by the Tory leadership front-runner – and while an investigation is under way into comments attributed to senior civil servants about whether Corbyn’s health would prevent him leading the country.
“We are going through a political nervous breakdown here in the UK,” Sir John told BBC Radio 4’s Today.
“We have potential prime ministers being elected by the Conservative Party now, in the shape of the leader of the Opposition, who do not have the standing that we have become used to in our top leadership.
“Whether people can develop that when they become prime minister, we will have to wait and see, in terms of the candidates for the Conservative leadership.
“But I think there is a lot of anxiety, as we leave the European Union we take a huge risk to our international standing, to the strength of the British economy.
“It is not surprising that the people who have devoted themselves to serving the interests of this country are concerned about the direction in which the country is going.”
Prime Minister Theresa May allegedly ordered some information be withheld from Johnson when he entered office in 2016 over fears he could not be trusted.
But the Tory leadership front-runner said reports by the BBC and The Sun newspaper were “not true”, adding he was “extremely dubious about the provenance of this story”.
Sir John, who had left his MI6 post by the time Johnson became foreign secretary, said: “Intelligence, by its very nature, is carefully handled and distribution is closely guarded, but the foreign secretary would normally be part of that distribution. Normally.”
On Brexit, he said former prime minister David Cameron had been “unwise” to put the decision on EU membership to the British people.
“That decision now taken, the country is very badly divided, our standing in the world is severely diminished as a consequence of the way in which we are handling all that.
“Can we recover? We recovered after a very messy 1970s with effective leadership in the 1980s.
“So I don’t think the situation is irretrievable, but we are going through a very difficult period as a country.”
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, chairman of Johnson’s leadership campaign and a prominent Brexiteer, shot back at Sir John.
“Actually I think he might be going through a political nervous breakdown,” Duncan Smith told Today.
“I’m certainly not going through one and I don’t think my party is either, to be honest with you.
“The reality is that the expression of democracy may well frighten him slightly.”