Simon Case is the cabinet secretary and head of the UK civil service. As such he is expected to maintain standards and integrity across the service, including offices in Downing Street, where he has his own desk.
The publication last summer of Sue Gray’s report into partying in Downing Street during the Covid lockdown was expected to prove awkward for Case. Although Case had not received a fixed penalty notice for breaking Covid restrictions, his political boss, the prime minister, had. Surely Case could not have been totally unaware of what was going on?
Whilst Case had not been fined, several junior civil servants had been. A report in The Guardian details the fallout.
The newspaper states: “it is fair to say not everyone is happy – particularly more junior officials, dozens of whom were fined”. There was “intense anger over such top officials doing nothing to stop the often boozy – and sometimes disorderly – social gatherings outlined in Gray’s report”.
The lack of sanction against Case was, however, unsurprising, sources added. “He’s joined at the hip with the prime minister. If Case had gone, that would completely expose Johnson. He’s a shield. How could you take action against him, when he wasn’t fined, and not the prime minister, who was fined?”. According to The Guardian “many in Whitehall said Case’s conduct throughout Partygate… was unforgivable”.
Civil service anger towards Case
One Whitehall source described the civil service anger towards Case as “visceral”. “His biggest mistake is not to have drawn a dividing line at any point with the PM. He has never picked a battle to defend the civil service”, the former colleague said.
By the same token Case (on the evidence available to us) has never picked a battle to defend individual civil servants. The defenestration of Boris Johnson had been triggered by a letter from Simon McDonald (then recently retired as permanent under secretary, Foreign Office) to the parliamentary standards commissioner pointing out the lies that were emanating from 10 Downing Street. Dominic Raab, in a TV interview, attempted to undermine McDonald (who had been a universally respected mandarin). Where was the attempt to support McDonald?
Previously, Johnson’s coming to power had begun a flow of resignations of senior civil servants. The most recent instance came with the arrival in office of Liz Truss and the arbitrary sacking of Tom Scholar. Scholar had been the most senior civil servant in the Treasury and has been described by his predecessor, Lord McPherson, as “the best civil servant of his generation”.
Allowing Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng to ‘fix’ their own Treasury team was to politicise a civil service that for centuries had been politically neutral. But there again, Johnson had already started the rot by selecting as the cabinet secretary the young, relatively inexperienced and pliable Case, who appeared to do nothing to stem the flow of staff and see to it that ‘natural justice’ took hold.
Shooting the messenger
It is clear to many observers that the civil service is not getting the leadership and support it deserves. Nor, when necessary, the protection. One middle-ranking civil servant, identified as ‘Stuart’, decided to take matters into his own hands. Distressed by the way in which civil servants were routinely expected to circulate the lies coming out from cabinet ministers, Stuart dialled in to an LBC radio phone in hosted by James O’Brien. The initial call was made on 5 July 2022 and was prompted by Raab’s attempt to undermine McDonald’s efforts to set the record straight. The interview can be accessed here:
Having been interviewed by O’Brien, Stuart went on to email Case to alert him to what he had said on air.
Last month Stuart went on air for a second time, to update O’Brien as to his experiences following the July call.
In short, Stuart repeated his original assertion that “we are living in a corrupt state”. In July he had been suspended for three months pending an investigation. “I was made to feel like a traitor – an enemy of the state” reported Stuart. The investigation concluded that Stuart had breached the civil service code, and he was dismissed.
The January phone-in exchange can be found here:
What comes across in both interviews is a distraught civil servant attempting to stop the rot at the top and getting sacked for his troubles. Natural justice?
Failure of leadership
Prior to being appointed cabinet secretary Case had had a glittering career, including for two years being the private secretary to Prince William. As one former colleague remarked:
“I think he would be the first to admit he did not have experience of system leadership. There was a clear gap in his CV when it came to being equipped to run the civil service… Simon was seen as the best and brightest, really hyped up”, he continued. “It’s awful how things have turned out and I think part of that is just how everything golden that Boris Johnson touches turns to s**t.”
Of course Case is entitled to expect natural justice and have a right of reply. It is possible that behind the scenes he has been battling valiantly to maintain civil service integrity but as yet without success. Possible – but given the evidence above, unlikely.