Simon Case is being scapegoated by anti-Boris coalition, sources claim
If certain voices in Westminster are to be believed, Rishi Sunak could sweep away all of his current difficulties with a single swing of the axe: by sacking Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary.
In recent days various news outlets have suggested that the Prime Minister can reset his premiership by getting rid of his most senior adviser, as if Mr Case was to blame for everything from small boats to the cost of living crisis.
Mr Case, 44, has found himself at the centre of an “orchestrated” campaign to oust him, and it tells us plenty about the current state of politics that so much heat is currently being directed towards an unelected official, rather than the ministers who are failing to inspire the electorate.
Mr Case is hardly a household name (he jokes to colleagues that fellow parents have no idea who he is at the school gates) and, at face value, it might seem that a civil servant battling to keep their job is of little interest to anyone who doesn’t work in SW1.
For the Conservative Party’s chances of re-election next year, it certainly does matter, because it speaks to a dysfunctionality at the heart of Government, and seasoned observers say it is this, rather than Mr Case himself, that Mr Sunak must eradicate if he is to have any hope of success.
Deflection, jealousy, backstabbing and score-settling are all at play in this murky saga that could yet end Mr Case’s time in Downing Street after three years and as many prime ministers.
His detractors say he has played a part in one too many scandals, and portray him as personally culpable in the Nadhim Zahawi vetting failure, Boris Johnson’s unconventional home loan, partygate and even wallpaper-gate. On Friday, yet more pressure was piled on Mr Case with a claim that he had been told about bullying claims against Dominic Raab last summer, the implication being that he failed to do anything about it.
Supporters of Mr Case, of whom there are plenty, argue that he is becoming a convenient scapegoat for all the Prime Minister’s ills. Moreover, they believe ambitious rivals have sensed an opportunity to unseat him and are aggressively briefing against him in the hope of creating a vacancy at the top of the civil service. Add to that a suspicion that MPs and officials alike are engaged in a purge of anyone involved in the Boris Johnson regime, and the breadth of the attack on Mr Case becomes clear.
Alex Thomas, who worked in Downing Street as principal private secretary to the late Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary to David Cameron and Theresa May, believes that Mr Case is the victim of a “phoney war” over what the Cabinet Office’s Propriety and Ethics Team told the Prime Minister and what Mr Sunak decided to do with that advice.
He said: “It’s on the Prime Minister to make these appointments and they can ask for advice but in the end it comes down to the Prime Minister’s judgement.
“There isn’t a Cabinet Office investigation team standing ready to go into someone’s personal finances or anything else they have to declare.”
There are three principal accusations aimed at Mr Case. Firstly, that he either knew or should have known that Mr Zahawi was under investigation by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) at the time Boris Johnson made him chancellor, but failed to raise the alarm. Secondly, that a formal complaint about Mr Raab’s alleged bullying was passed to him last year but he failed to act. And thirdly, that he failed to raise conflict of interest concerns about Mr Johnson entering into a loan guarantee agreement with Sam Blyth, a Canadian businessman, who had been introduced to the then prime minister by Richard Sharp, the man later chosen to be BBC chairman (Mr Case did, in fact, advise Mr Johnson to stop speaking to Mr Sharp about “personal financial matters”, a leaked memo has shown).
The home loan guarantee was arranged in 2020, while the events surrounding Mr Zahawi and Mr Raab took place last year. The fact that all of them are now being dredged up at the same time is no coincidence, according to those sympathetic to Mr Case.
“It does feel very orchestrated and that’s what bothers me,” says Lord Udny-Lister, who as Sir Eddie Lister worked alongside Mr Case as Mr Johnson’s Downing Street chief of staff.
“The suggestion that Simon Case should have gone to HMRC over the Nadhim Zahawi case is rubbish.
“It’s the job of the PET to vet people and check into their past. When there is a Cabinet reshuffle there will always be a PET person who does an interview straight after the new minister has been in to see the prime minister. A lot of it is based on trust because reshuffles are done in the space of 24 hours.”
Lord Udny-Lister describes Mr Case as “highly competent” and “the right person for the job”.
Having joined the civil service in 2006, moving to Downing Street as a private secretary to David Cameron and Theresa May, he left Whitehall to work as private secretary to Prince William in 2018, but in August 2020 he was back in Number 10 as Boris Johnson’s Cabinet Secretary, the youngest person to hold the post.
Mr Johnson and Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser, picked Mr Case because he believed in civil service reform (and still does), which made him unpopular with some civil service colleagues. There are also those who thought they deserved the job more.
One former civil servant recalls: “When he was brought in, relationships had completely broken down, it was utterly dysfunctional, partly because of Cummings. There was a lack of clarity about who and how decisions were being made, and Simon had to restore trust and calm things down.
“Simon ran towards a fire rather than backed away. I truly believe he wasn’t seeking the Cabinet Secretary role but accepted it as a public service.
“There is a sense from some people that there is a right way of doing things and there is a certain set of things you have to do to get the top job, and there are people who are maybe 10 years older than him who think it should have been them in that role.
“But the idea that he is too young or too ambitious or he has somehow perverted the normal course of things by taking the route he did, is just nonsense.”
It will not have escaped Mr Case’s attention that the latest story about him claimed that he was told about Mr Raab’s behaviour by Antonia Romeo, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice. Ms Romeo, 48, is one of those whose names has in the past been linked to the most senior civil service roles in Downing Street and the Treasury, though there is no suggestion she is behind any of the briefings.
Others blame a separate faction for Mr Case’s current plight. One former minister in the Johnson government, who worked closely with Mr Case, said: “Simon is one of the few people remaining in No 10 from the Boris days and there are people who just want to clear out the Boris world from No 10.
“At the moment it’s just, ‘get Boris and get anyone around him.’ It’s almost that he is seen as a traitor by some people – ‘how could he work for and help Boris?’”
Mr Case also served under Liz Truss, and was blamed by some colleagues for failing to prevent Kwasi Kwarteng from sacking Sir Tom Scholar as permanent secretary to the Treasury during his brief stint as chancellor. Old scores are, it appears, there to be settled.
Separately, some MPs who are ultra-loyal to Mr Sunak may believe they are doing him a favour by trying to lay the blame for each new controversy at the door of Mr Case. Mr Thomas referred to it as “distraction activity”.
Like all Cabinet Secretaries, Mr Case stands on the fault line where politics and officialdom meet, meaning there are inevitable conflicts in his role. He has two whiteboards in his office, one for the priorities of Government, and the other for civil service reform, and allies say he is passionate about both.
On Friday, Mr Case spent the day visiting the UK Space Agency at Harwell in Oxfordshire, on the sort of fact-finding mission that he conducts below the radar most weeks.
He was there as an envoy-cum-troubleshooter for the Prime Minister, one of the many facets of his sprawling role.
As well as being head of the civil service, making him the boss of 500,000 people, he is the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, and the man tasked with making sure government policy is being implemented by Whitehall departments.
After 100 days in power, Mr Sunak is not where he wants to be. His net approval rating of minus 18 is one of the worst in modern times, and current polling shows the Tories would retain just 67 seats if an election took place under present voter intention. The Bank of England this week predicted a recession lasting into 2024, and the war in Ukraine grinds on with no end in sight.
Mr Sunak appears to believe that none of these problems will be solved by sacking Mr Case, and those close to Mr Case say he has no intention of resigning.
A Downing Street spokesman said the Prime Minister had “full confidence” in Mr Case, and one Whitehall source said: “There is no evidence of Simon being edged out. The relationship between the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary is just not a subject of discussion or debate. He is very much aligned with what the Prime Minister is trying to achieve. You always get these tensions but the backdrop is there has been a radical period in British politics and these are not peaceful times.”