United Kingdom

Simon Case: can the head of Britain’s civil service survive?

Simon Case, Britain’s youngest head of the civil service in recent times, has been in post for little over two years, but some in the country’s mandarin class want him out, accusing him of being the ultimate “courtier” at the heart of a dysfunctional regime.

The sacking this weekend of former chancellor and Tory party head Nadhim Zahawi and the controversy over the appointment of Richard Sharp as chair of the BBC have embroiled Case in a row over standards in public life when civil service morale is plunging, staff are striking over pay and the number of officials quitting is rising.

Just as Case was pictured briefly attending a lockdown birthday event for then prime minister Boris Johnson in the cabinet room in June 2020 — at the time he was Number 10 permanent secretary — the 44-year-old has been a background presence at a time of rolling scandals.

“There has been a question mark over him for some time, not just now: whether he has what it takes to be cabinet secretary,” said one former permanent secretary, who like many in the Whitehall firmament prefer to make their criticisms anonymously.

One serving senior official said: “He operates as a courtier. His writ doesn’t run across Whitehall. He doesn’t seem to be in key meetings with the prime minister.” Another former permanent secretary in a major department said: “I don’t think he has any credibility left and really he should go.”

But Case’s supporters insist that he is determined to uphold standards and that he retains the confidence of Rishi Sunak, the prime minister. They also argue that he has given the “best possible advice” and point out his job was not always easy during the chaotic premierships of Johnson and Liz Truss.

In the last days of Truss’s crumbling 44-day administration, he advised her to reverse parts of her disastrous “mini” Budget to stave off economic disaster, according to Downing Street insiders. They say he was also instrumental in coordinating with Buckingham Palace over arrangements for the Queen’s funeral.

Case’s supporters add that he hoped to serve at Sunak’s right hand until at least the next election, expected in late 2024. “Cabinet secretaries tend to change after an election,” said one.

Case became cabinet secretary and head of the civil service in September 2020 when Johnson sacked his predecessor, Sir Mark Sedwill, after only two years in the post.

Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, was instrumental in bringing Case in. At the age of 41 he had held a range of roles in Whitehall and had been Prince William’s private secretary.

A series of scandals engulfed Johnson’s premiership, ranging from the financing of his flat refurbishment and the partygate scandal over Covid-19 lockdown-breaking gatherings in Downing Street, to the appointments of Zahawi and Sharp, which reverberate today. Case, as the prime minister’s most senior adviser, is inevitably in the line of fire.

Johnson appointed Zahawi as education secretary in October 2021 and as chancellor in July 2022, but on neither occasion did the former minister declare he was subject to a tax probe by HM Revenue & Customs, according to Sir Laurie Magnus, Number 10’s ethics adviser.

Simon Case, left, at Boris Johnson’s birthday drinks in Downing Street © Sue Gray Report/Cabinet Office/PA

The media reported in July that Zahawi was under investigation by HMRC — he concluded a £5mn settlement with the tax authority in September 2022 — prompting questions about why Case and the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team did not push him on the issue.

However, fellow mandarins point out that ministers have to “self declare” if they are subject to an HMRC investigation and that the tax authorities do not raise a red flag. “What can you do if they don’t tell the truth?” asked one official.

But some believe Case and his ethics team should have challenged Zahawi. One former Tory cabinet minister said: “If he knew something was dodgy, he should have properly interrogated it.”

Magnus, in a damning report on the affair, said Zahawi had committed several breaches of the ministerial code and that he would expect a minister to “proactively update their declaration of interests form to include details of such an HMRC process”.

The Sharp affair also raises awkward questions for Case, who was at the centre of discussions with Johnson on how the then prime minister might secure an £800,000 bank loan.

Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker, has acknowledged that Sam Blyth, a Canadian businessman and distant cousin of Johnson, approached him with a view to helping Johnson with his financial problems. Sharp said he put Blyth in touch with Case.

A memo issued by Case on December 22 2020 and obtained by the Sunday Times stated: “Given the imminent announcement of Richard Sharp as the new BBC chair, it is important that you no longer ask his advice about your personal financial matters.”

Johnson’s spokesman has said Sharp never gave financial advice to the former prime minister. Sharp has also denied giving Johnson financial advice.

“Simon said Sharp shouldn’t be involved and that if [Johnson] wanted to take out the loan he would have to follow certain conditions,” said a colleague of Case’s. “He checked out Blyth’s background.” The Canadian provided a guarantee for the loan.

Some Whitehall veterans suspect Case put his advice to Johnson in writing because he was worried about the arrangement. “You never put anything in writing unless you want to give yourself cover later on,” said one.

The events have further sapped Whitehall morale. The Institute for Government’s 2023 Whitehall monitor, published on Tuesday, found that in the year to March 2022, 13.6 per cent of civil servants moved between departments or left the civil service entirely, the highest level for a decade.

Staff turnover is at record highs after falling during the pandemic. Chart showing turnover (as a % of the civil service workforce). Civil service leavers accounted for nearly 9% compared with 5% for internal tranfers.

The report said the involvement of ministers and officials in the partygate scandal “raised serious questions about their respective standards, created negative publicity, harmed perceptions of civil service impartiality and damaged the authority of cabinet secretary Simon Case”.

Case recognised the problem of falling morale last month in a memo to civil servants, saying that results from a staff survey were “heading in the wrong direction and show that you feel things have become worse”.

“As well as being cabinet secretary, advising the PM, Simon Case is head of the civil service, so it’s his job to lead the workforce and address problems within it,” said Hannah White, director of the IfG.

“If morale is falling, officials are taking industrial action, turnover is increasing, and relations with ministers are strained and playing out in the press, Case needs to show how the civil service will address these problems by providing visible leadership of the institution in 2023,” she added.

Civili service pay in the UK at each grade has substantially decreased in real terms. Chart showing change in median civil service salary (%, real terms). The entire civil service pay now stands more than 4% lower than in 2010. With senior civil servants seeing a fall of almost 25% in real terms

Case’s supporters say the cabinet secretary is determined to address concerns across Whitehall, but concede that he is less involved in day-to-day policymaking than he was during the Johnson and Truss premierships.

They add that while Sunak has broadened his circle of advisers, including senior officials from Whitehall departments, Case remains an important adviser on core issues including migration, defence, science and Northern Ireland.

A Number 10 source said Sunak and Case “enjoy a good working relationship. Simon is thoughtful in meetings and has a professional, calm manner that is respected by those he works closely with in No 10.”

The Cabinet Office said: “The cabinet secretary is focused on ensuring that the civil service and the whole of government is working together to deliver for the British people.”


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