Good morning. Another change in the civil service? Simon Case is reported to be weighing up his future as the UK’s top civil servant. Some thoughts on our scoop in today’s note.
The news that Sue Gray was set to join Keir Starmer’s team broke midway through the Conservative party’s away day. The news spread through the gathered MPs “like wildfire” in the words of one attendee, with MPs spotting it on their phones and informing their nearby colleagues.
It spooked MPs for a number of reasons. The first is that some of them had direct dealings with Sue Gray’s stint as the cabinet office’s fixer and “vanisher” of secrets, and they worry that she will take those secrets with her.
The second, as I wrote on Friday, is that for some of Boris Johnson’s allies, it presents them with the opportunity to muddy the waters around Johnson’s exit, and the significance of her parties report. (For the real story of Gray’s report, Rob Hutton’s piece for the Critic is worth reading). But it helps them throw enough mud and enough confusion that it blurs the real reasons for Johnson’s departure and — they hope — facilitates his return as prime minister.
The third is that for others, they see a respected civil servant jumping ship to the opposition, and they conclude that Gray, like many in Westminster, has written off the Conservative party’s chances of remaining in office after the next election. Isaac Levido, the party’s chief strategist, had spent much of the away day presenting data showing that the Labour lead is soft and that the Conservatives have a viable path to victory at the next election.
That senior civil servants think their own prospects are better served by leaving the civil service for the leader of the opposition’s office seems, rightly or wrongly, like evidence against Levido’s conviction.
I don’t think that is quite true, but nonetheless, enough MPs believe it to be true. It is also another issue for Simon Case, who was appointed cabinet secretary in September 2020. The row over whether or not Gray behaved properly in disclosing her meetings with Keir Starmer and her interest in the job may yet rebound on to him.
That’s the background to our scoop from Chris Cook, George Parker and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe: that Case is considering an early exit from the role.
Case would be mad not to be considering his future. He was extremely fortunate to survive the leadership transition from Boris Johnson to Liz Truss. What saved him was the fact that Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng considered Tom Scholar, the former permanent Treasury secretary, a more important roadblock. The pair thought they couldn’t clear both in one swoop without causing themselves too many problems.
Now Case faces challenges from two fronts. On the one hand, there are lingering questions about Johnson’s Downing Street and the cabinet secretary’s knowledge of internal affairs, not least Johnson’s alleged personal financial relationship with the BBC’s chair, Richard Sharp. (Sharp has said he put Sam Blyth, a businessman who had approached him with a view to assisting Johnson, in touch with Case.)
On the other hand, the cabinet secretary is quoted extensively in the Telegraph’s “Lockdown Files”: the leaked WhatsApp messages received and sent by Matt Hancock at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. He at least seems to emerge as someone on the same side as Hancock.
Essentially everyone in the Conservative party knew there were three key cabinet figures in the debates over lockdown: Matt Hancock (pro), Michael Gove (pro) and Rishi Sunak (anti). But what is genuinely new, as far as the internal rhythms of the Tory party are concerned, is that Case described some opposition of Covid-19 restrictions as being driven by “pure Conservative ideology”, and that Johnson was “nationally distrusted”.
It leaves Case in a difficult position: he is sparking concern among those who see him as Johnson’s last courtier, a pliant and ineffective Cabinet secretary who ought not to have outlasted the prime minister who appointed him. But he is also facing criticism from lockdown sceptics on the Tory right.
Will he go? I don’t know. But given the forces he faces in the Conservative party, he would be mad not to be at least considering leaving on his own terms.
My column this week is on World Book Day, costumes and the resultant task for parents.
Now try this
Morning — Georgina here: I’ve just read The Trees by Percival Everett, a fast-paced satire of US racism that jackknifes from playful comedy into solemn horror, as it investigates a pattern of murders beginning in Money, Mississippi.
Also brilliant US satire: The Righteous Gemstones, a television series about an oddball family of televangelists in charge of a corrupt megachurch. John Goodman gives a genius performance as a world-famous, but undoubtedly human, patriarch. My partner and I are working (and laughing) our way through season two.
Top stories today
‘Wishful thinking’ | Rishi Sunak’s planned legislation to halt cross-Channel migration by barring anyone arriving on small boats from ever claiming asylum in the UK was met with widespread scepticism on the eve of its introduction to parliament.
DUP deadline for verdict on Brexit deal | Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party has set up a consultative group to evaluate the revamped post-Brexit trading regime by the end of March, days before the 25th anniversary of the region’s key peace deal.
Reeves to review ‘yo-yo’ tax on businesses | Labour is to review the UK business tax regime as part of efforts to make Britain the fastest-growing economy in the G7, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves will announce today.
Fears of Nato pledge in peril | British politicians warned that the failure to maintain adequate military spending risked undermining the UK’s commitments to Nato. Prime minister Rishi Sunak is expected to announce a multibillion-pound short-term increase to Britain’s £54bn defence budget during a trip to the US for a tripartite defence summit with Australia next week.