Is Simon Case the new Cressida Dick? The Civil Service has not been declared institutionally misogynist, racist or homophobic. Nor institutionally corrupt. But it has not been well led in recent years. Had Jeremy Heywood lived, he would have had serious questions to answer about the Greensill affair, though it is fair to note that he may have had good answers. Still, that whole episode does not reflect well on anyone involved: not the civil service nor the politicians nor the banks all falling over themselves to help a fluent opportunist without asking any hard questions. As was all too predictable, reputations have been harmed and vast sums lost.
Now we have Simon Case – Cabinet Secretary since September 2020 – and in a number of senior roles before then. Despite an apparently impressive CV and a fast rise to the top, he has not shone in his latest role. The Archangel Gabriel would not have found it easy dealing with Johnson, let alone trying to persuade him to stick some rules. Even so, Case has shown an impressive ability to get to the top and stay there while managing – so far – to avoid being held accountable for a series of unfortunate misjudgments. It is as if all his skills have been devoted to climbing the greasy pole and holding on rather than in actually doing the job he’s been employed to do, competently and effectively. Rather like the man who appointed him, in fact. And rather like a number of other senior people who should either never have been appointed or who stayed far too long and damaged the institution they were in charge of. Like Ms Dick, for instance. Or Ms Sturgeon. Or Ms Spielman.
- His inability to ensure that No 10 civil servants complied with Covid rules.
- His own breach of the rules.
- His acceptance of the investigation into Partygate until he realised – or it was pointed out to him – that he was conflicted.
- His alleged treatment of Sue Gray after her report into Partygate.
- The current row about the terms and timing of Sue Gray’s departure.
- The Downing Street wallpaper investigation.
- What he did or did not do in relation to the sacking of Tom Scholar by Liz Truss, a move which left the Treasury bereft of experienced leadership and likely contributed to last autumn’s Truss-induced financial hurricane.
- The appointment of Richard Sharp and what Case did or did not advise Sharp about his role brokering Johnson’s finances.
- His inability, according to the report into the Sharp affair, to keep accurate, clear, reliable minutes – the ABC in a civil servant’s toolbox, one would have thought.
- The poor relationship between Ministers and civil servants.
- The management of the disciplinary and grievance process.
On and on it goes.
Rather than be the person quietly effective at defusing or managing these tricky situations, Case seems to be a player in them, part of the story but also strangely absent when it comes to asserting his authority and finding resolutions. That is now the difficulty. Whatever the truth of the various stories and allegations, the fact is that he is now part of the stories and has lost whatever authority he once had. His judgment does not appear to be sound. A senior civil servant without authority or good judgment is, to borrow a phrase, “in office but not in power”. It is time for him to go.
The civil service is not perfect, by any means, but it is necessary to good governance (I know, the very idea!) and to effective governance and to governance in accordance with some generally accepted ethical standards. Those working in it and those Ministers for whom they work need people at the top who have the judgment and toughness necessary to manage a difficult – but important – function and relationship.
Whether Case was promoted too soon, whether he was let down by an amoral and untrustworthy PM, whether he was overwhelmed by the demands of Covid on top of everything else, whether he was never the right man for the job, whether he was too focused on managing his own career rather than on achieving anything tangible or whether it is a mixture of all or some of these, it scarcely matters now. He is no longer the right man. The longer he hangs on – or is allowed to stay – in his current role the greater the damage. The PM needs a better top advisor. The Civil Service needs a better leader. Voters need an essential part of the state to work well. Politicians allowed Cressida Dick to stay too long. All this decision-making by inertia or “better the devil you know” approach achieves is to make the job of a successor harder than it need be. The PM should not make the same mistake again.