Simon Case: how the ‘killjoy’ cabinet secretary threw his ex-boss Boris Johnson under the bus
“The most indiscreet man in government”. A self-described “Mr Killjoy”. “The first big political casualty of the Lockdown Files”.
These are just some of the phrases that have been used to describe cabinet secretary Simon Case over recent weeks. Just days after a number of “embarassing” WhatsApp messages of his came to light in #TheLockdownFiles, insiders are now accusing him of giving the then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson assurances that Covid guidance was followed at all times during the Partygate scandal — claims he denies.
The Lockdown Files’ extraordinary government WhatsApp leak has cast many a public figure in a questionable light over the last few weeks, but while ex-Tory ministers Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson stole the spotlight for the first few days, a new figure has rapidly been lined up as their scapegoat: Case, 44, the UK’s most senior civil servant, who today hit back at Johnson and told the Commons privileges committee that he was not aware of anybody giving Johnson any reassurances about the Covid rules during Partygate — despite this being one of Johnson’s key lines of defence until now. So if it wasn’t Case who reassured him, then who was it?
Case’s denials follow a turbulent few weeks in his career — even by turbulent career standards. Just a fortnight ago, he was reportedly considering quitting after a series of “absolutely cringeworthy” WhatsApp messages of his were revealed in the Files. Calling then-PM Johnson a “nationally distrusted figure”, mocking members of the public forced to stay in quarantine hotels, and describing his now-boss Rishi Sunak as “going bonkers” were among the most shocking messages of Case’s to emerge at the time.
From his background working for the royals to his involvement in the partygate saga, this is everything you need to know about the man at the centre of this month’s political storm.
The spy who worked for William
Case has been dubbed “the most important man in politics you’ve probably never heard of”. At 42, he became Whitehall’s youngest ever Cabinet Secretary after a high-profile career including stints working on the 2012 London Olympics, directing strategy at GCHQ, working as private secretary to PMs David Cameron and Theresa May, and then taking on the same role for the Duke of Cambridge.
He took on the royal role in June 2018, shortly after Harry and Meghan‘s wedding, and reportedly hoped for “a quieter life” after spending a year working as the Director General Northern Ireland and Ireland on the post-Brexit Irish border issue. But his time at the palace wasn’t to be as quiet as he had hoped: he reportedly played a role in elevating William to the point where his brother Harry felt “pushed out”.
“I disliked these men,” Harry writes in his memoir, Spare, of three “middle-aged white men” believed to be Case and two of his fellow private secretaries, nicknaming them “the Bee, the Fly and the Wasp”. “... they didn’t have any use for me. They considered me irrelevant at best, stupid at worst.”
Case’s Westminster era began in April 2020, when he was seconded to the Cabinet Office from his royal role to help with the government’s handling of the pandemic. He was reportedly handpicked by then-PM Boris Johnson and his controversial ex-adviser Dominic Cummings amid frustration about ministers’ response to the virus. “He was brought in by Dom, to do what Dom wanted,” an ex-government aide who worked closely with Case once said. “Dom wanted to shake things up, change the way [the civil service] worked. That’s what he was there to do.”
Case’s secondment from Kensington Palace was intended to be a temporary move, but within three months he was made a permanent secretary with responsibility for running No 10.
By September, he was running the show as head of the civil service, sitting at the PM’s side at every cabinet meeting and tasked with ensuring government policy is put into action, but prevented from commenting publicly by civil service impartiality.
He was the youngest person to hold the position since 1916, which some say ruffled feathers amongst other Whitehall officials. “From next week, he will be the ultimate keeper of secrets in the UK,” his former PhD tutor, historian Peter Hennessy, said before he took the post.
A pandemic and three prime ministers
The role of cabinet secretary is to act as a powerful but largely invisible figure – but the Lockdown Files saga isn’t the first time Case has hit the headlines or been lined up as scapegoat.
His most high-profile time in the spotlight before now was when it emerged that he had hosted a supposedly lockdown-breaking gathering in his private office during the Partygate affair last year.
Ironically, the Sue Gray report was very nearly the Simon Case report, if details of the gathering hadn’t emerged. When reports of the partygate scandal first emerged at the end of 2021, it was Case himself who was tasked by Johnson to lead an internal inquiry into the affair. But he was removed from the post a week later when reports emerged of a gathering in his private office in December 2020, so the job was handed to Sue Gray.
Case escaped being fined in the Scotland Yard investigation, but reports at the time suggested that he was being lined up to take “ultimate responsibility” when Gray delivered her final report.
In the end, Case rode out the storm and was not sacked, going on to serve under two further prime ministers: Liz Truss, and now Rishi Sunak.
A Tory scapegoat or an “indiscreet” civil servant who deserves to go?
Case claims claims he is becoming a lightning rod for criticism of the civil service, but others say that even if he is forced to stand down, he is hardly an innocent scapegoat.
Critics on Twitter say his WhatsApps show how he “became indistinguishable from the politicians” during lockdown, displaying a “weird chumminess with Matt Hancock” and acting as “one of the prime minister’s ‘lads’ in No 10”.
In one series of WhatsApps, he said the thought of travellers coming “out of first class and into a Premier Inn shoe box” was “hilarious” and accused then-business secretary Alok Sharma of being motivated by “pure Conservative ideology” when arguing that pubs and restaurants should not be forced to collect guest’s personal information during the pandemic.
Other leaked conversations show Case describing himself as “Mr Killjoy” in meetings with “bouncing Boris J” who he thought was too optimistic about the pandemic. He describes then-Chancellor Sunak as “going bonkers” about NHS Test and Trace guidance being tightened for the hospitality sector.
Sunak has defended Case since the leaks, saying that he was looking forward to working with Case for a “very long time to come”, but others say the cabinet secretary will be left with “no choice but to resign” as the leaks continue.
“He was the most indiscreet man in government,” a government source who has worked with Case said earlier this month. “You should see the stuff he put in WhatsApps, some of it’s extraordinary. There will undoubtedly be more to come. It’s hard to believe that during the inquiry there won’t be other messages that come to light. There are messages that have been sent that will be impossible to defend. He’ll have to go.”
If Case does indeed resign, he will be the second-shortest serving cabinet secretary after his predecessor, Lord Sedwill, despite serving three prime inisters during his tenure. Sources close to him suggest he may pursue a new career in academia if he leaves the post. “I think that when he joined the Civil Service in 2006, it was that or academia,” a friend said this week. “I think that the academic world is something he makes no bones about, that he’s always admired. It wouldn’t surprise me if he did embrace an academic career once he retires.”
Whether it’ll be Case or Johnson or someone else who’ll be the first big political casualty of the Partygate and the Lockdown Files remains to be seen, but if insiders’ suggestions are anything to go by, Case’s reputation as the country’s “keeper of secrets” certainly seems to be unravelling, fast.