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1 May 2023

When will Simon Case finally resign?

The cabinet secretary is a courtier unwilling or incapable of speaking truth to power.

By Martin Fletcher

As cabinet secretary Simon Case is supposed to remain in the shadows, but he seems incapable of avoiding the spotlight.

In today’s Times the head of the civil service is accused of pursuing a “vendetta” against Sue Gray, the partygate investigator. Case reportedly wants Gray banned from becoming Keir Starmer’s chief of staff for a year.

The previous day the Sunday Times highlighted Case’s failure to take notes during a meeting with Richard Sharp in December 2020 at which Sharp, who was applying for the BBC chairmanship, says he mentioned his efforts to secure a loan for Boris Johnson and thus presumed he had dealt with any potential conflict-of-interest concerns. Case lamely told Adam Heppinstall KC, author of last week’s report on the affair, which led Sharp to resign, that he “simply [could not] recall” what was said at the meeting.

As cabinet secretary Case is also supposed to defend the impartiality of the service, serve as a guardian of propriety and offer the prime minister robust advice, however unwelcome. On those scores too he has persistently been found wanting. Indeed, one suspects that Johnson appointed him back in September 2020 specifically because he would not fulfil those key constitutional roles.

Case was proposed by Dominic Cummings, then Johnson’s chief strategist, who had declared war on what he disparagingly called the Whitehall “blob”. The new cabinet secretary replaced Mark Sedwill, a much tougher character whom Johnson and Cummings regarded as too Europhile, establishment and inflexible. Case, previously Prince William’s private secretary, was just 41 and had never run a Whitehall department, making him the youngest and least experienced cabinet secretary in more than a century.

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His lack of authority, gravitas and spine quickly became clear. He stayed silent as Johnson refused to dismiss or punish Priti Patel, then home secretary, after an inquiry concluded she had bullied her civil servants.

He not only failed to warn Johnson against holding parties in No 10 during the Covid lockdowns but actually participated in at least two, meaning he had to recuse himself from leading the subsequent investigation. Gray’s report concluded that “the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official [my italics], must bear responsibility” for the culture that led to the scandal. Junior civil servants were furious that they were fined while Case was not, and that he did not do more to defend them.

Case then stayed silent as Johnson (and his civil service press officers) repeatedly lied about the parties to both the country and to parliament. In his new book on Johnson’s premiership, the distinguished academic Anthony Seldon records Case confiding to an associate: “I don’t know what more I can do to stand up to a prime minister who lies.” The associate replies: “You have to tell him.” Case confesses: “I have. He doesn’t listen to me.” Told he should resign, Case responds: “What’s the guarantee that he won’t bring in someone even less able to stand up to him?”

Alas, Case seemed no more capable of standing up to Liz Truss after she succeeded Johnson as prime minister.

One of her first acts, together with Kwasi Kwarteng, the chancellor, was to sack Tom Scholar, the Treasury’s highly respected and experienced permanent secretary, because he embodied what they disdainfully called “Treasury orthodoxy”. This was seen as the imposition of a new ideological compatibility test, and a blatant warning to other permanent secretaries. It caused outrage within the civil service, but in public at least Case said nothing.

Jill Rutter, then a senior fellow at the Institute of Government, wrote: “It is a sign of his feebleness that – if he tried to warn against it – they went ahead anyway.” In a letter to The Times, the former Home Office permanent secretary David Normington said Scholar’s sacking “sent a clear message to the civil service that [Truss and Kwateng] are not interested in impartial advice and intend to surround themselves with ‘yes’ men”. It was “disappointing”, he added, that Case had “acquiesced in the sacking and once again failed to stand up for the values of the civil service”.

The consequences became clear two weeks later. Kwarteng unveiled his catastrophic mini-Budget, full of unfunded tax cuts, and the markets crashed.

Case’s performance appears to have improved little under Rishi Sunak. He either failed to discover, or failed to warn, the new Prime Minister that Nadhim Zahawi, his choice for chancellor, was being investigated for tax avoidance. He either failed to discover, or failed to alert, Sunak to the bullying allegations that led to Gavin Williamson’s resignation as minister without portfolio and Dominic Raab’s as deputy prime minister and justice secretary.

In addition to this came the leak in March of Matt Hancock’s private pandemic-era WhatsApp messages, which must have had Case squirming with embarrassment. Far from displaying the judgement and discretion one would expect from a cabinet secretary, he told the then health secretary that Johnson (then his boss) was a “nationally distrusted figure” and that Sunak’s opposition (as chancellor) to Covid restrictions was “bonkers”. Told by Hancock that 149 returning holidaymakers had been confined in quarantine hotels for two weeks, he replied “hilarious” and said he wished he could see the faces of first-class passengers confined to a “Premier Inn shoe box”.

Case has somehow survived under three prime ministers, but the truth is surely now apparent. He is not up to the job. He runs a demoralised and resentful civil service that has no confidence in his leadership. He has failed to defend its impartiality and independence against a hostile government determined to politicise it. He has presided over a collapse in the trust between ministers and officials that is essential for effective governance. In short, he has proved to be a courtier unwilling or incapable of speaking truth to power.

If Sunak really wants a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability” he should put Case out of his misery and appoint a new cabinet secretary forthwith.

[See also: Westminster is broken]

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