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Simon Case must spell out how he will be a cabinet secretary for the whole civil service

Simon Case is playing it safe rather than setting out his stall

Catherine Haddon watched on as Simon Case made his first select committee appearance since his appointment as cabinet secretary – and finds a witness preferring to play it safe than set out his stall

Simon Case became cabinet secretary at an extraordinary time, and his first few weeks in post have been dominated by the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis. His first outing in front of a select committee was never going to be easy and, appearing before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on Thursday, Case was hesitant at times. His answers also left a vital question unanswered: how will the new cabinet secretary balance the demands of working for the prime minister with his new duty of being a leader for the civil service.

Case needs to move on from the No.10 focus of his previous job

Case returned to government in the summer of 2020 to help fix problems in the government’s coronavirus response and to strengthen the No.10 operation. His answers to the committee suggest that this is where his focus still lies. When asked to list his priorities, Case listed the government’s priorities: tackling the pandemic, Brexit, the Union and implementing its manifesto. Leading and reforming the civil service were described as ‘overarching’ aspects of his role, and when pressed on questions of management and leadership of the civil service in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, Case was far more comfortable talking about being ‘senior official policy adviser’ to the prime minister on the Union and working with his devolved officials on Covid matters.  

Leaning into policy and government co-ordination makes sense for Case, at least for the short term. Jeremy Heywood, a mentor for the current post-holder, did not even want to be head of the civil service (HCS) at the start of his tenure. When Heywood accepted the additional role, after three years as cabinet secretary, he still allowed John Manzoni, then ‘chief executive’ of the civil service, to expand his empire – but Heywood was clearly in charge. Case is still quite an unknown quantity for many thousands of civil servants, and he has work to do to demonstrate his authority as head of the civil service.

The new cabinet secretary should not interpret his role too narrowly

The role of cabinet secretary is a combination of formal responsibilities and less tangible, but constitutionally very important, levers of power: as the most senior civil servant, Case has to think carefully about how to use that power. Case emphasised, time and again, his willingness to stand up to his political masters, and their desire to hear hard truths from civil servants. But he barely set out his own strategy for using the cabinet secretary’s status and seniority to navigate tricky rows.

Some of Case’s answers were by the book – quite literally. Asked about his constitutional powers, Case listed the references to the cabinet secretary in the Cabinet Manual. He stuck with what is written down and hinted at expanding what is on the page – Case said he found it notable that there was no reference to his role in the Civil Service Code or the legislation that underpins it. He did not get into, nor was he pressed on, the wider questions about whether the cabinet secretary plays a kind of constitutional guardian role – protecting those parts of the constitution that are not written down and which depend on interpretation of precedent and principle.

On allegations of bullying by home secretary Priti Patel and the Ministerial Code investigation, Case emphasised that the ‘ultimate arbiter’ of the Ministerial Code was the prime minister – it is for Boris Johnson to respond and to decide when to publish the inquiry. While accurate, the answer did not distinguish between questions of ministerial conduct, which are for the prime minister, and on treatment of civil servants, which are for the HCS. If the report finds there is a case to answer, it is still a matter for the cabinet secretary.

Case says he is ‘loyal but fearless’ in his advice, but is publicly playing it safe for now

On the question of the UK Internal Market Bill and the row over the government’s willingness to break international law, Case was not asked directly about the resignation of the head of the government legal department, Jonathan Jones. But his answers are unlikely to reassure officials with concerns over existing safeguards set out in the Civil Service Code: Case set out the grievance process, but concluded that it was up to officials to choose whether to resign.

Case then found himself in rather tautological territory as he explained why the Civil Service Code had not been breached because it was up to members of the government to judge whether officials had been asked, by the government, to break the law.

Case has hit on a major problem. It is true that elected law officers are both the most senior legal advisers within government and, as ministers, have the democratic authority to instruct the civil service. But the code is meaningless if it is up to the government to decide what constitutes a breach. It was a reminder that, for all the careful explanations of the levers of power at his disposal, Case’s role is just as much about the informal, nuanced power which he now holds.

The prime minister expressly wanted Simon Case as cabinet secretary for what will be a defining period for his government. But with huge pressures on officials, on a number of fronts, this is also a defining period in how government works. Simon Case used this select committee appearance to explain how he will be the cabinet secretary for the prime minister; he now needs to show how he will also be the cabinet secretary for the civil service.

Johnson government
Number 10
Institute for Government

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