Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, could be drawn into the bullying investigation launched amid the royal rift over the Duke and Duchess of Sussex just as the government is facing the challenges of coronavirus, Brexit and Scottish independence.
Mr Case may have to answer questions in an investigation announced by Buckingham Palace into allegations of bullying of staff by the duchess.
He was told about the allegations, it is claimed, 16 months ago while working as the Duke of Cambridge’s private secretary.
Mr Case has since been appointed cabinet secretary, succeeding Mark Sedwill, and becoming the youngest head of the civil service for a century.
Boris Johnson is reported to have personally approached Prince William to bring the highly regarded civil servant back into government in September.
His previous posts have included strategy director at GCHQ, policy adviser at the Ministry of Defence and director general at the Northern Ireland Office.
Mr Case is reported to have received an email in October 2018 from a colleague, Jason Knauf, then communications secretary at Kensington Palace, saying, “I am very concerned that the duchess was able to bully two PAs out of the household in the past year”.
The email, leaked to The Times, said the treatment of another member of staff was “totally unacceptable” and that, “the duchess seems intent on always having someone in her sights. She is bullying Y [name withheld] and seeking to undermine her confidence. We have had report after report from people who have witnessed unacceptable behaviour towards Y.”
Buckingham Palace announced on Wednesday evening that an investigation will be launched into the bullying claims.
It said: “We are clearly very concerned about allegations in The Times following claims made by former staff of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Accordingly our HR team will look into the circumstances outlined in the article.
“Members of staff involved at the time, including those who have left the household, will be invited to participate to see if lessons can be learned.”
The royal rift is due to widen further on Sunday with Meghan appearing in a “tell-all” interview with Oprah Winfrey screened on CBS in America. ITV will broadcast the interview in the UK on Monday.
A spokesperson for Harry and Meghan has denied the allegations of bullying, calling them a “calculated smear campaign based on misleading and harmful information”.
In a legal letter to the The Times, they added that the duchess was, “saddened by this latest attack on her character, particularly as someone who has been the target of bullying herself and is deeply committed to supporting those who have experienced pain and trauma”.
On Thursday, the government reached a settlement – reportedly worth around £340,000 – with Sir Philip Rutnam, the former permanent secretary in the Home Office, who had threatened to take Priti Patel, the secretary of state, to an employment tribunal, claiming he was forced out for trying to stop her bullying staff, which she denied.
A senior Whitehall official said: “This is a big distraction for Simon Case at a difficult and busy time for us all. He has been dragged into this and will probably have to speak to this investigation.
“As far as one knows, the conclusions [of the investigation] aren’t expected to be made public for quite a while but one thing one can bet on is there’s going to be lots of leaks in the media.
“There are likely to be legal repercussions If it’s proved that bullying did take place, then, presumably, there will be people seeking compensation, especially if there was any kind of cover-up over this. This is a pretty toxic subject.”
Another Whitehall official held it was highly unlikely that any evidence will be found that Mr Case is culpable of wrongdoing.
The official said: “As far as I am aware Simon’s remit did not include handling this sort of issue with staff, and he passed the matter on to the HR people.
“Anyone who knows Simon will know he is not a person to condone bullying. But there’ll be a fair amount of publicity, no doubt, with so much briefing now going on by both sides.”
Asked about Mr Case and the bullying allegations, the prime minister’s spokesperson said, “it is a matter for the palace”.