Case did not want cab sec job, Cummings claims

Simon Case took the job “to forestall a disaster” after others turned it down, ex-spad tells Covid Inquiry
Photo: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire

Simon Case did not want to be cabinet secretary but stepped up “to forestall a disaster” when Boris Johnson tried to put forward “unsuitable” candidates for the job, Dominic Cummings has claimed.

In his written statement to the Covid Inquiry, which also said then then-prime minister’s behaviour in 2021 and 2022 made the cab sec’s job “impossible”, Cummings wrote: "Neither Case nor I initially intended him to be cabinet secretary. He did not want the job, suggested I sound out others which I did, and resisted taking the job.”

Case was No.10 permanent secretary when cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill announced he was to resign in May 2020. Case had only just been appointed a perm sec at that point.

When it was decided in the summer that he would be Sedwill’s successor, Case told Cummings “that he was obviously not the best person” for the cab sec role, according to the former spad.

Cummings’s 115-page written evidence details the difficulty No.10 had in identifying candidates to fill the vacancy, and persuading them to take the job.

Case "did not seek the job and tried, with me, to get others to do it”, he wrote.

“We could not find someone who was a) obviously a big improvement for the job in the circumstances of Covid and b) acceptable to the PM who was very nervous about 'upsetting the system' and did not want to look outside Whitehall (which I did – at least look and talk, was my argument). Others turned it down.”

Cummings said the so-called “system insiders” he approached would not take the job because “they thought (rightly) I would soon be gone and they'd be left to deal with the PM”.

“He then suddenly started floating extremely unsuitable names and I felt I had to rush through Case's appointment, against my and Case's better judgement, to avoid a disastrous appointment," he added.

Among the “ridiculous ideas” Johnson put forward for the job was a former diary secretary, the former spad said.

“So Case took the job in a rush partly to forestall a disaster.”

Cummings also said Sedwill, Case’s predecessor, had also “not sought the job, did not think he was the right person for it, and only took it out of a sense of duty”.

Sedwill was named acting cabinet secretary when his predecessor, Jeremy Heywood, became ill and took leave in 2018. He then took on the job on a permanent basis when Heywood passed away later that year.

“Mark was a decent public servant who did well in other roles but he was a diplomat and the way that the crisis exposed problems across Whitehall required different skills, training and experience,” Cummings wrote.

In an interview with CSW shortly before his departure in 2020, Sedwill said that when then-prime minister Theresa May appointed him as cab sec alongside his existing national security adviser role, she knew what she was getting – and “I was unable to persuade her to not ask me to do it.”

“I've never made any secret of the fact that I took on the job because I was asked to, out of a sense of duty,” he said.

Cummings said that Sedwill retaining the national security adviser job – a controversial move at the time – "was a bad idea and became impossible in 2020”. However, he blamed May for the appointment, rather than Sedwill.

Perm secs ‘weak’

While Cummings's criticism was primarily aimed at Johnson, he also took shots at officials, as well as ministers.

He that that while appointing Case “was fundamentally a PM decision, it's important to note that the permanent secretary cohort that had been cultivated for many years was very weak, many had to be removed in 2020, more should have been removed”.

Among the perm secs who lost their jobs in 2020 were Home Office top official Sir Philip Rutnam, who quit over the behaviour of then-home secretary Priti Patel; and Department for Education head Jonathan Slater, who took the fall for a row over the use of algorithms in awarding A-Levels and other qualifications when exams were cancelled.

Elsewhere in his evidence, Cummings said a "handful of senior officials were the wrong people for the posts".

"This meant they were unable to replace other people who were wrong for their posts," he said.

"However, it is the PM who is responsible for the wrong people remaining in crucial jobs."

He said successive prime ministers had failed to use their powers to "improve personnel systems in Whitehall or open them up so we can recruit from the very best people in the country".

A government spokesperson said: "Throughout the pandemic the government acted to save lives and livelihoods, prevent the NHS being overwhelmed and deliver a world-leading vaccine rollout which protected the nation.

"We have always said there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic and we are committed to learning from the Covid Inquiry’s findings which will play a key role in informing the government’s planning and preparations for the future."

Read the most recent articles written by Beckie Smith - Civil servants 'should reflect on use of Whitehall-ese', Case tells Covid Inquiry

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