Simon Case named as new UK Cabinet secretary

By on 01/09/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
A profile picture of Simon Case

Simon Case is to replace Sir Mark Sedwill as Cabinet secretary and head of the UK civil service, prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed on Tuesday.

In May, Case – a former principal private secretary to PMs David Cameron and Theresa May – was seconded from his job as private secretary to Prince William into the role of Number 10 permanent secretary. He was tasked with overseeing the implementation and delivery of the UK’s COVID-19 policies. 

Case – who at 41 will be the youngest Cabinet secretary for decades – said he was honoured to have been appointed: “Over these few months of working on the COVID response, I have seen how much hard work is being done by the civil service to support the government and our country through unprecedented times. It is a privilege to come into this role to lead a service that is working day in, day out to deliver for people right across the country.” In a statement, Johnson said Case “will make a fantastic Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service. His years of experience at the heart of government and working for The Royal Household make him ideally suited for this crucial role”.

Mixed reactions

Privately, some senior officials question whether Case has the experience for the job. “Jeremy Heywood was the only previous Cabinet secretary appointed without having run a major department – and Simon has far less experience than Jeremy had at that point,” one former very senior civil servant told Global Government Forum. “Simon has been appointed to lead major civil service reforms, but I’m not aware of him having ever designed or delivered a public sector reform programme. There is great disquiet among serving and former civil servants about his appointment.”

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, former Cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell emphasised that Case will have to work hard to build relationships across the civil service. “It is a surprise to have someone so young, but I congratulate him and he has a lot of experience inside Number 10,” he said. “I think the challenge for him is to restore trust in government and restore the civil service’s trust. At the moment we’ve got ministers blaming civil servants for everything, talking about reform without explaining why they want that reform and what’s going wrong at a ministerial level. There’s a big task for him but he has the trust of the prime minister – that’s really important – and now he needs to get the trust across the civil service and his fellow permanent secretaries.”

However, former minister for the Cabinet Office David Lidington and former UK ambassador Tom Fletcher both tweeted praise for Case. Fletcher described him as “hardworking”, “widely respected”, a “brilliant, creative problem solver” and someone who “gets stuff done”, while Lidington said Case would “do his upmost for whoever is the elected PM and government. He’s nobody’s patsy and is unafraid to give ministers candid advice, even if it’s unwelcome”.

Surprise appointment

Case was not initially tipped for the role: Department of Health permanent secretary Chris Wormald had been seen as the frontrunner, with Antonia Romeo, who heads up the Department for International Trade, and senior Treasury official Charles Roxburgh cited as other potential contenders.

It has been widely reported that Case did not apply for the Cabinet secretary role, and that he had planned to return to his post working for Prince William. Asked whether he had submitted an application before the deadline, a Cabinet Office spokesperson told GGF that Case’s appointment was made in line with the process set out in the Cabinet Manual, and that “it was a decision for the prime minister, on the advice of the retiring Cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, and the first civil service commissioner, Ian Watmore”. 

In response to people’s concerns over Case’s lack of experience in senior management roles, the spokesperson told GGF that he “is an experienced senior civil servant with a proven track record of working closely with the most senior ministers and the prime minister of the day. He has held senior roles in No10, serving three different prime ministers, the Cabinet Office and Department for Exiting the European Union, and spent two years as private secretary to HRH The Duke of Cambridge.

“The country is facing an extraordinary set of challenges and Case has consistently demonstrated that he has the experience and vision to lead the civil service through this period.” 

Sedwill’s departure

It was announced in June that Sedwill, who has served as Cabinet secretary and head of the UK civil service since 2018, and national security adviser (NSA) since 2017, would stand down in September as part of a major Whitehall shake-up orchestrated by Johnson’s chief aide Dominic Cummings and minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove.

The news came after the publication of a series of anonymous briefings to the press against Sedwill, including accusations that he had failed to get a grip on the coronavirus crisis. The circumstances of his departure, and the political appointment of Johnson’s chief Brexit adviser David Frost to the role of NSA, drew criticism from former senior civil servants and union leaders, who accused the government of weakening accountability and civil service impartiality.  

Head of the Northern Ireland civil service stands down

In other UK news, it was announced on Monday that David Sterling has left the Northern Ireland civil service (NICS) after 42 years.

Sterling was appointed interim head of the province’s civil service in 2017, three months into the collapse of the Northern Ireland administration following a fallout between coalition parties Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party. He was later appointed to the role on a permanent basis and oversaw the organisation as it was forced to run public services without the direction of ministers – a period he has described as “among the most challenging and difficult in the history of the Northern Ireland civil service”. Ministers returned to Stormont in January, when the political deadlock ended.

Sterling announced in December that he would retire at the end of August. “Today I leave the NICS after 42 years, 199 days,” he wrote on 31 August. “I’m proud to have worked with wonderful people and dedicated public servants who work hard every day to make a difference. It has been an honour and a privilege to lead the organisation.”

The Irish News reported that five senior civil servants were interviewed last week in the search for a new civil service chief, including Department of Finance permanent secretary Sue Gray – a former ethics chief in the UK Cabinet Office – and Department of Justice permanent secretary Peter May.  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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