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Simon Case's absence has left a growing gap in government

The government needs to be clearer about how it is organised while the cabinet secretary is on medical leave.

Simon Case, cabinet secretary
Cabinet secretary Simon Case has stepped back from his role to take medical leave, the Cabinet Office has confirmed.

Simon Case is on leave and should rightly have time to recover. But there will come a point soon when more sustainable arrangements are needed to cover his absence, says Alex Thomas

Core participants at the Covid inquiry have been updated on the cabinet secretary’s “ability to give evidence during the Module 2 hearing”. Given the extremely high bar public inquiries set for postponing attendance, this suggests an extension of Simon Case’s medical leave. It is the first official statement on Case’s private medical matter since a Cabinet Office spokesperson announced a “short period of leave” last month.

Whatever the public and private commentary about Case, his WhatsApps and his role as cabinet secretary, he should receive only good wishes for a swift recovery. He also has employment rights that need to be respected like any other civil servant, albeit one who occupies a very particular job.

This hiatus will anyway not work to Case’s advantage. The inquiry needs to hear from him at the earliest possible opportunity, and for all his apparent discomfort at some previous parliamentary hearings he will know his cause is best served by sharing his perspective with the inquiry and the public. His WhatsApps surely do not tell the whole story and Case will want – and the inquiry will need him – to fill in the gaps. 

Arrangements are in place to backfill for the cabinet secretary 

In a cabinet secretary’s absence there is no automatic process for anyone else to step in. His roles are being covered by colleagues at the moment, although no official announcement has been made. Sir Chris Wormald, the longest serving and therefore by Whitehall convention most senior permanent secretary, has stepped in to cover some parts of the job – presumably appointments, ethical and constitutional questions and liaison with other permanent secretaries.

Sir Alex Chisholm, the civil service chief operating officer and permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, will be picking up the civil service management and reform side. Emma Churchill, the head of the Economic and Domestic Secretariat, has stepped in to lead the cabinet minute-taking and sit alongside the prime minister at the cabinet table. In this way the different parts of the job are covered, though it would be helpful for there to have been proactive public transparency about what is happening – the publication of a short list of responsibilities.

Unless Case returns soon more sustainable arrangements need to be made

A cabinet secretary must of course be able to temporarily step back from the job with cover arrangements made as appropriate – just as Boris Johnson did when prime minister. But we should also recognise that the current set-up is sub-optimal. Wormald, while a very experienced official, is also leading the Department of Health and Social Care and has himself spent extensive time on the Covid inquiry. Chisholm has announced that he is leaving the civil service in the spring.

The current parcelling out of responsibilities obviously leaves a gap, because there is no substitute for a well-deployed cabinet secretary. For example, when London was rocked by marches and counter-protests on Remembrance weekend and the home secretary and Met commissioner’s relationship became dysfunctional, an operational cabinet secretary would have had the clout to step in, calm tensions and broker solutions. A cabinet secretary perspective is useful during reshuffles, major fiscal events and crises overseas. And making the links between foreign, security and domestic policy should be a key function for the top government official.

The senior role allows them to step back, not purely speaking for the prime minister, but representing the interests of government as a whole. That opens up conversations and the ability to deploy authority in ways others in No.10 and across departments cannot. At its best the cabinet secretary’s office is part of the connective tissue that solves crises and makes government function. A crucial part of Sunak’s government is missing. 

If Case steps down, there should be a proper process with opposition consultation

The current set-up can only be a short-term solution. If Case needs more time to recover then a formal interim should be appointed for a time-limited period. If he decides to step down and there is a vacancy for this vital job then Sunak needs to take recruitment for a successor seriously. The cabinet manual says that appointment should be “by the prime minister on the advice of the retiring cabinet secretary and the first civil service commissioner”. Beyond that it is silent on the process. Prime ministers can be tempted to appoint informally but it would be far preferable to run a quick but thorough recruitment, with a proper panel and applications open to external and internal candidates.

Whenever the vacancy arises, under whichever prime minister, it is also time for a modest but important innovation. To help close the chapter on a period of civil service turbulence and to distinguish himself from his most recent predecessors, the prime minister should consult on the appointment of the next cabinet secretary with the leader of the opposition. It would be damaging for the impartiality of the permanent civil service for Sunak to appoint one cabinet secretary before the election and – should it happen – Sir Keir Starmer to appoint another after a Labour victory. The same duty of consultation should apply if Starmer were to be prime minister when the vacancy arises. Continuity in the civil service extends to the top.

Sunak and Starmer do not have to agree on the right candidate and ultimately the choice would be down to the prime minister. But if there were agreement it would be a powerful signal that the leaders of both main political parties share an understanding of the competence and quality required of the civil service’s leadership.

For now, unless we expect a rapid return, the government should at least be transparent about who is doing what, and how job-cover is to be improved, when the country’s top civil servant is on a leave of absence.

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