Voices: Why is Simon Case at the centre of so many Tory scandals?
In his best-selling memoir Spare, Prince Harry describes, in unflattering terms, a palace courtier with a scornful nickname: “The Fly had spent much of his career adjacent to and, indeed drawn to, s***. The offal of government and media and wormy entrails, he loved it, grew fat on it, rubbed his hands in glee over it, though he pretended otherwise.”
Fair or not, it is widely thought that The Fly is in fact Simon Case, then private secretary to HRH Prince William and now – having returned to the happy ordure-filled feeding grounds of Whitehall – the cabinet secretary; right on top of the dung heap.
I’ve also seen Case described by a former colleague – anonymously of course – as a “worm”. He doesn’t seem to get a very good press, not least when he was caught up in Partygate. He crops up too as a character in the strange story of Boris Johnson, his secret £800,000 “credit facility”, a distant cousin, and the chair of the BBC. And he’s there again, probably, somewhere in the Zahawi scandal; unless we assume that this consummate operator at the apex of the government machine was somehow unaware of much of the details of the beleaguered Tory chairman’s tax affairs.
Case? He’s everywhere and nowhere, baby; that’s where he’s at. Not so much a fly, really. Or a worm. Or even a slider at the centre of the web of intrigues. Although, for example, he attended the very same infamous “ambushed by cake” birthday party for Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak (albeit very briefly), only the then prime minister and chancellor of the Exchequer received fixed penalty notices from the Metropolitan Police.
Indeed, he and Johnson almost managed to pull off the spectacular feat of having Case investigate Partygate – until it was discovered that Case was one of those who would need to be interrogated. Sue Gray was given the role, and it is only right to point out that you’ll find little reference to Case in her report. After it was published it was said Case might face disciplinary proceedings; if so, they were not made public. He remains in post, and is now on his third prime minister.
Quite mysterious is his role in the £800,000 Johnson “credit facility”, which came about after a series of contacts between Johnson; Richard Sharp (Johnson acquaintance, Tory donor and now BBC chair); Sharp’s friend Simon Blyth (guarantor for the credit facility, an unknown entity that provided the money) and Case himself.
We still don’t know much about what may come to be dubbed “overdraftgate”, but what seems to have happened is that Blyth contacted Case (or possibly vice versa) about the novel arrangement. At any rate, the public, parliament and BBC were not aware of any of the potential conflicts of interest that might thereby arise; nor the precise role the cabinet secretary played; nor why he approved the scheme, as he must have done.
These are all serious questions. But with all the focus on Sharp, he seems to have slipped away again.
The question for Case is simple, and should not be avoided: what on earth did the think he was doing getting involved in the private finances of Johnson (his boss)? Did he ever feel uncomfortable about what was going on around him?
There are some other questions too, such as why he thought he was an independent enough figure to investigate partygate, as was originally intended. Why, too, he tolerated the odd Wallpapergate business. Why he apparently stood by, later, while Kwasi Kwarteng summarily sacked Tom Scholar, permanent secretary at the Treasury – a breach of the traditional independence of the civil service. Or, why he permitted Kwarteng and Liz Truss to defy convention, circumvent the Bank of England and the OBR, and wreck the public finances.
Same now with the Zahawi scandal. Where is Case? Perhaps when Sir Laurie Magnus – the independent adviser on ministerial conduct – completes his work, we’ll have a better idea of what Sunak knew (and when) about the HMRC penalty imposed on Zahawi. But will we also learn precisely what Case told and did not tell Sunak about Zahawi’s affairs, which were highly germane to his continued membership of the cabinet? Did Case tell Sunak all he knew, and all the PM needed to know?
This is the crucial and increasingly disputed question. In his latest statement, Sunak says: “Because new information came to light over the past week, that’s why I decided to ask the independent adviser to fully investigate this matter. When I appointed Nadhim Zahawi to his current job, no issues were raised with me about that appointment.” Sunak is said to be “livid” with Zahawi.
On the other hand, media reports based on a source in the government say that Downing Street had been aware of a penalty as part of a settlement with HMRC when Sunak appointed Zahawi. Downing Street strongly denied the claim. But did “Downing Street” – ie. Case – tell the prime minister?
When Johnson forced out the long-serving “old school” previous cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, Case became the youngest chief of the civil service in half a century. It was rumoured to be part of a Dominic Cummings-inspired bid to revisionist the civil service, regarded as obstructive and antique. But it looked more like crude politicisation, with Case basically employed to do Johnson’s bidding – and facilitate whatever unconventional approaches to governance our capricious former leader fancied.
Or at least, that’s the impression of how turned out. In Case’s defence, we don’t know what calamities he prevented, or what he said “no” to; but the very fact of his close association with Johnson, as with so many others, hasn’t been an unalloyed pleasure. Case himself once pleaded to a select committee, with mandarinate elegance, that he had to follow orders: “The government of the day is one which is not remotely afraid of controversial policies. It believes it has a mandate to test established boundaries. It takes a robust view of the national interest … and it focuses very much on accountability to people in parliament, not on the sort of unelected advisory structures.”
No doubt that is still Case’s view today; and so he slinks off again, though maybe with his tail a little less defiantly high in the air.