One of the advantages of sitting in the spare bedroom for most of the day is the ability to daydream without getting caught, which I did in the spare few minutes I had before the latest Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee hearing.
Up before the Alpacas were the new cabinet secretary Simon Case and Alex Chisholm, the chief operating officer. With the greatest respect to the COO, the cheap seats were being filled with the first appearance from Simon Case, only a few weeks in the job with the bruise from the PM’s rubber stamp still sensitive to the touch.
Indeed, as I daydreamt, I realised I’d never heard his voice. Given how improbably young he is, I did wonder if it would be like a York Minster chorister's, just at breaking point, and he’d squeak away in uncontrollable pitch changes. I was, I have to say, more than a little disappointed. He sounded more like a senior civil servant from the 1950s on the commute home to East Cheam. Indeed, this double act could not sound more archetypal civil servant, and of course why shouldn’t they?
It’s just that we were spoiled over the last three years in these sessions with Bulldog and Swiss Tony. Bulldog’s menacing lean across the table as his super skinny fit M&S shirt struggled to contain the guns he honed in Camp Bastion’s gyms, when he’d snarl at the breathtakingly naïve/stupid questions of previous Alpaca members (though thankfully that has definitely improved). Swiss Tony, so laid back he’d put his foot on the edge of the desk and rock his chair back as he pondered aloud how best not to answer the question. Tbf I’ve seen him do that in a meeting once and he still had the price sticker on the bottom of his shoe.
A few minutes in and William Wragg, chair of the committee and member of the Manchester 6, asks what I assume was an awkward question about giving the PM difficult advice, but rather suspiciously the sound went off. I imagined Hard Rain Man sitting in the No.10 Mission Control room, staring at his bank of enormous Currys own brand tellys. One of these is linked to a big data algorithm designed by Darren, 22, who came fourth place in the school Grand Theft Auto competition and was brought in as a contractor under the WMP (Weirdo and Misfits Programme). Darren’s algorithm has recognised William Wragg’s speech tones and predicted a difficult question, and Dom immediately bangs hard on the big red mute button. Unfortunately, as they all high five, Dom lets go of the button and we hear the end of the answer. He needn’t have bothered.
Simon Case may not be a household name and he may have got this gig surprisingly early in his career, as he acknowledged, but he didn’t get here without knowing how to dodge a difficult question. He did, after all, work for the Royals. As the session rolled on, we got a few interesting moments and the odd bit of Whitehall tittle-tattle. The management of the permanent secretary group is being split between Case, COO and Tom Scholar, the Treasury perm sec - that had my eyebrow doing Roger Moore impressions. Case got into a kerfuffle over the civil service code question when it sounded like he was advocating for civil servants to resign like it was stage 3 of a set out process, just after stage 2 (send a memo to your line manager).
There were some difficult areas, like the investigation in to the home secretary’s conduct or the “churn” in perm secs, which is an interesting phrase to use about the chaos of the last six months. He was asked about the status of those who’ve been appointed to key operational roles such as Dido Harding, which would normally have been undertaken by civil servants and gone through a selection process. These were public appointments, at ministerial discretion, over which he has no direct control. This is such a complex issue over accountability and political neutrality that he took to reading aloud from a letter he’d prepared.
As with a number of these issues, the real fight is with politicians and the sessions can often be just civil servants trying to politely avoid getting drawn into areas that no-one should expect them to comment on.
But the cabinet secretary is of course also head of the civil service and this was the area where Case threw off the East Cheam baggage. He spoke passionately about civil service values and the need to be able to speak truth to power. I sensed a twinkle of emotion when he talked about the heroics he had witnessed over the last few months, as civil servants responded to the pandemic under phenomenal pressure.
It’s been an extraordinary few months and years for the civil service, where the political leadership is not simply absent, but at times hostile. Civil servants need a leader who can influence privately and inspire publicly. There was just enough of both on show to remain hopeful.