Senior civil servants are asking whether Simon Case can survive at the top of Whitehall for as long as he has been in the job.
From his supervision of No. 10 during the Partygate scandal to his role in the Richard Sharp affair, Case’s name has come up in almost every controversy to mock Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak over the past two years. When a top official becomes a story over and over again, more often than not that means his days on the job are numbered.
“The common thread is that his advice doesn’t seem strong enough,” says one former permanent secretary.
Those suspicions are shared by some former senior Whitehall figures who say Case has not shown enough backbone in standing up to his Conservative political masters when the likes of Johnson have tried to push the boundaries of constitutional decency.
A former royal courtier, fellow permanent secretary Cás was considered insufficiently experienced to run the entire domestic civil service when Johnson appointed him in 2020.
A series of episodes since then has only added to the discord over his leadership within the civil service. These include failing to stand up to Truss when she left permanent Treasury secretary Tom Scholar, allowing Nadhim Zahawi to become chancellor when his tax affairs were under investigation, and releasing cummy messages to the former health secretary Matt Hancock. Among these, Case described Johnson in one message as a “nationally distrusted figure”, and referred to Sunak’s opposition to Covid restrictions on businesses as “current sadists”.
Other incidents include his role in agreeing that Johnson could obtain a secret loan guarantee from his distant cousin Sam Blyth and allowing the prime minister’s friend Richard Sharp to play a role in facilitating the loan despite his application to be chairman of the BBC.
And, going back as far as April 2021, there were questions about Case’s moves to pave the way for Johnson to get loans for work to be done on apartment No. 11, a controversy called Wallpapergate.
However, the latest controversy has even bigger cross-party political implications: ordering an inquiry into whether Sue Gray broke civil service rules by talking to Labor about becoming Keir Starmer’s chief executive while still a senior official in the Cabinet Office. His critics say this is an overreaction to the Tory minister’s order, especially since he has pushed Gray to get a long promotion period before joining Labour.
No former civil servant who worked with Case has so far been willing to go on the record, although Sir David Normington, the former Home Office permanent secretary, accused him of “failing to stand up to the values of the civil service” over the Scholar. That makes Anthony Seldon, the political historian who has written several definitive books on prime ministers, the most serious person so far calling for Case to go.
Speaking to The Times, Seldon said: “I believe the civil service has never been weaker, worse than under such a powerful leadership. The country needs a strong, effective Whitehall, as recent policy failures and errors show. The civil service is a team without a captain. He is crying out for modernization and change, but the head of the civil service does not have the authority or experience to do it.”
No 10 and cabinet ministers publicly held Case round on Tuesday, expressing their full confidence in him. But behind the scenes, there are signs that Case has been sidelined by Sunak compared to his influence under Johnson, and rumors persist in Whitehall that he may move on after the coronation.
As a former senior royal aide, the government is keen on her role in dealing with the constitutional complexities of the queen’s death and the transition to King Charles’ rule.
It is also acknowledged, however, that his leadership of the Cabinet Office in particular has fallen short in terms of workforce management, morale and relations with ministers.
“He is responsible for leading the institution. And it’s his job to deal with these problems with an emerging spirit,” said one Whitehall expert. “Anonymous criticism of Simon Case is not in short supply.”
It is clear that confidence in Cás among civil servants is low, despite his allies reporting in newspapers that the vast majority are behind him.
However, his future is likely to be a matter of politics. Sunak has just a year and 18 months to go before another election, and he may decide he doesn’t want the upheaval of putting a new figure in charge of his civil service.
After that, Case is unlikely to keep his job in a new administration – especially a Labor administration where Gray has any influence.