The reams of WhatsApp messages Matt Hancock exchanged with senior figures during the pandemic, published as part of the Telegraph’s Lockdown Files investigation, are providing a fascinating insight into how the government was operating during Covid.
As Jonn writes here, many of the revelations about ministers confirm much of what we already suspected at the time. New light has been shed on the actions of Simon Case, whom Boris Johnson appointed as head of the civil service in 2020. Some of his exchanges could be seen as inappropriate and appear to show the cabinet secretary, who has a duty to remain impartial, sharing political opinions.
The leaked files include, for example, messages from Case saying he found it “hilarious” that holidaymakers were “locked up” in Covid quarantine hotels after returning from abroad, and that he wanted to “see some of the faces of people coming out of first class and into a Premier Inn shoe box”. He also described some opposition to Covid rules as “pure Conservative ideology”, saying in a separate exchange that Rishi Sunak, the chancellor at the time, had been “going bonkers” about a row over contact tracing and that Alok Sharma would be ”mad” to oppose the idea.
Arguably, he also stepped over the line when he shared his view that Johnson was a “nationally distrusted” figure when it came to public messaging on the virus.
Robert Buckland, who served as Johnson’s justice secretary, described the conversations in his characteristically understated manner when he appeared on Channel 4’s The Andrew Neil Show, saying that what WhatsApp messages do “is blend the personal throwaway remark with process” and that “the makers of those comments would regret… having sent them”.
But it is far from the first time Case has attracted criticism. Amid the fallout from partygate, he had to recuse himself from leading an investigation into gatherings after reports emerged one had taken place in his private office. He faced calls to resign and Sue Gray – who is preparing to take up a role as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff – was appointed to take over.
It has also been reported that Case is responsible for the exit of Gray, considered to be among Whitehall’s most talented civil servants, by blocking her appointment to lead the Levelling Up Department.
Case, who was made cabinet secretary aged just 41, refused to quit during partygate. While more revelations are expected in the coming days, the civil service code states that civil servants must not only behave properly but that they also avoid the perception of impropriety. Liz Truss was rumoured to want Case out, and Rishi Sunak chose to keep him in post. But with the pressure on him mounting, some are beginning to speculate that, rather than any serving minister, Case is the government figure who’s so far suffered the most damage as a result of the Lockdown Files leaks.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.