'I am v v cautious about walking back into this': Case deterred from Covid job by 'behaviours' in No.10

"I will not work for Dom," Simon Case told cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, who was frustrated with spad's “divide and rule” approach
Photo: NurPhoto SRL/Alamy Stock Photo

Simon Case was “v v cautious” about returning to government to lead the Covid response and Mark Sedwill was close to quitting as cabinet secretary because of the behaviour of Dominic Cummings and others, the Covid Inquiry has learned.

WhatsApp messages and emails sent at the height of the pandemic and published by the inquiry have shed light on the extent to which the working environment in No.10 was deterring officials from taking on critical roles leading the crisis response.

In a WhatsApp exchange with Simon Case – who would shortly be named as No.10 permanent secretary – on 18 May 2020, Sedwill repeatedly expressed frustrations about “behaviours” in No.10, including what he called then-political adviser Cummings’s “divide and rule” approach.

In comments just six weeks before he announced he was resigning from government,  Sedwill said he had “agreed to stay on for now, subject to various conditions about behaviour and systems”, following a “good and v candid conversation with PM including about Dom [Cummings]”.

Case responded that he was “not willing to agree to do any job back in this version of the centre [of government] without guarantees/honest conversations with the PM about behaviours”.

When the conversation took place, Case had been working in No.10 on secondment from the Royal Household for around a month. On 20 May he was named No.10 permanent secretary, where he led work on the Covid response.

Sedwill said he had asked his team to “work up a model” for the role “based on the JJH model” – understood to refer to former cab sec Jeremy Heywood’s appointment as Downing Street perm sec under then-PM David Cameron in 2010.

Case said: “I will work for you and the PM. I will not work for Dom. I will not support any version of No.10 that undermines any cabinet secretary, let alone you… I will do my utmost to support a PM but I am v v cautious about walking back into this.”

He added: “Honestly, Mark, I don’t want to go near these people. If as part of all this there are some guarantees about behaviour, I will give it a go for a very short period.”

Later in the same conversion, Case said he “might be willing to have a go at this (this Covid thing) for three months”.

“But I still want a chance to say to the PM before accepting even that short stint that if there is any repeat of this behaviour (not to me, but to anyone else), I will simply walk out early.”

Sedwill replied: “That would be helpful. We have to show they can’t divide and rule. And he has to know you are a player in your own right not a cipher for Dom.”

Asked about the exchange at a hearing yesterday, Sedwill said it “came after a point where there had been very severe friction between me and the prime minister and his immediate team”.

Counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC said: “It is apparent from Mr Case's hesitation at taking the job of being permanent secretary in No.10, and ultimately cabinet secretary, that the behaviour, as he perceived it and as you perceived it, of people in Downing Street, was positively affecting his willingness to take that role.

“You were aware that the behaviour, whatever it was and from whomsoever it was coming, was affecting the stability of the working arrangements in No.10 and the Cabinet Office. You were aware that it was affecting the stability of the civil service at the highest point of government.”

“Correct,” Sedwill said.

Messages published by the inquiry earlier this month revealed that Case did not want to succeed Sedwill as cabinet secretary but had taken on the role out of a sense of duty.

In a witness statement, Cummings said Case “did not seek the job and tried, with me, to get others to do it”.

'We are not running a dictatorship here'

Also published yesterday was an email chain involving Sedwill, Cummings and a number of officials and special advisers that took place a few days before the cab sec's conversation with Case – and may explain some of his frustration with the spad.

In an email to top No.10 and comms staff, Cummings called for an 8.15am meeting “chaired by me or Lee (Cain), so we are in position to answer Qs properly for PM at 9”.

“This morning’s 8.15 [meeting] involved a load of people from comms baffled about policy and unable to make decisions or even knowing who is in charge of key policy areas – we need to bring key players together, cos shortly the PM is going to have to start making decisions daily at the 9 and we have to have these lined up, not cos ‘we don’t know who is doing this work’ which is where we are now,” he wrote.

Mark Sweeney, director general of the cabinet secretariat in the Cabinet Office, suggested that having a regular meeting that included members of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat but without scientists “is actually not a bad idea to inject some order”.

“It is also preferable to No.10 talking to themselves,” he added.

The email chain was then forwarded to Sedwill, who warned: “We are not running a dictatorship here and the PM is not taking nationally significant decisions with a bunch of No.10 spads and no ministers, no operational experts and no scientists.

“If necessary, I will take over the 8.15 slot and chair a daily meeting myself.”

Ed Lidington, Sedwill’s deputy principal private secretary, then added that the PM should begin leading daily COBRA meetings “to head this off”.

He said Sweeney would tell Cummings that “we need to make sure that there are proper structures here to make decisions" and that Sedwill would advise the prime minister on that.

PM 'needed massive reset with officialdom'

On 28 June – the day Sedwill’s departure from government was announced – Case sent the cab sec a message that read: “The one thing they cannot take away from you is the long track-record of loyal and courageous service. Crown service of the likes many of political colleagues will not understand.”

The following day, Case asked if the two should ask Johnson to hold a meeting with all permanent secretaries “on issues/priorities”.

He said he had warned the PM that he needed “a massive reset with officialdom”.

“He’s allowed other people to spoil his relationships with the people he needs to help him deliver his agenda.”

In the same conversation, Case raised concerns that civil servants were not involved in decisions about a local lockdown in Leicester, where Covid infections were running especially high.

“I have only just realised there were no senior DHSC officials anywhere near this. Where was Matt’s perm sec or DG? We are engaging with PHE, the clinicians etc. But there is no-one around driving the policy side of operational lockdown on Matt’s behalf. Weird absence,” he said.

“Welcome to the last six months,” Sedwill replied.

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