Boris Johnson has chosen a 41-year-old member of his inner circle as the UK’s top civil servant, in a sign that the prime minister wants a trusted figure to push through tough reforms to how the British state is run.
Simon Case’s appointment, confirmed by three people with knowledge of the selection process, is expected to be announced on Tuesday. The government declined to comment.
Mr Case has earned Mr Johnson’s trust since his temporary appointment as permanent secretary in Number 10 in May, a move intended to bring some order to the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
But his relative lack of experience — and his professed desire to return to his old job as private secretary to Prince William — meant that few considered him a leading candidate to replace Mark Sedwill as cabinet secretary in September.
One Whitehall veteran said: “The weaker prime ministers go for people they know to do that job.” Mr Case will also be seen by Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, as a relatively new face willing to undertake radical reforms.
In June Mr Cummings told political aides that a “hard rain is coming” and promised to overhaul an “incoherent” Cabinet Office, creating a smaller and more elite centre of government and shaking up Whitehall culture.
The coronavirus pandemic exposed failings across government, but Mr Case will head a civil service which is already bridling at a sense that officials rather than ministers are taking the blame for mistakes.
Jonathan Slater, the top civil servant at the Department for Education, was sacked last week over the summer exams fiasco, the fifth permanent secretary to leave their post in the last six months. No minister has resigned over coronavirus mistakes.
One senior official said: “Simon’s appointment is very much a ‘hard rain’ appointment. It’s a sign they want to do things quickly. But if the other permanent secretaries don’t recognise that person as ‘the boss’ there will be trouble. Will he find that the levers aren’t attached to anything?”
Mr Case joined the civil service in 2006 and his career has included jobs helping to deliver the 2012 London Olympics, working as private secretary to former prime minister David Cameron, and trying to resolve the Irish border issue thrown up by Brexit.
When he joined Mr Johnson’s Number 10 team it was seen as a sign that Sir Mark’s authority as cabinet secretary was waning. In June Mr Johnson in effect sacked Sir Mark, who will now take up a seat in the House of Lords.
One colleague of Mr Case said it would be “completely wrong” to see him as a “creature of the prime minister”, pointing out that he had earned the trust and respect of many others in senior positions, including Mr Cameron and the royal household.
The colleague said Mr Case would have no problems commanding the respect of senior civil servants, noting that he had helped to stabilise the Number 10 operation after the chaotic early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
The appointment was made by Mr Johnson on the advice of Ian Watmore, the civil service regulator, with input from Sir Mark.
Mr Case saw off much more experienced rivals in the race to succeed Sir Mark, including the presumed frontrunner Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department of Health; Charles Roxburgh, a senior Treasury official; and Antonia Romeo, permanent secretary at the Department for International Trade.
Sir Chris had previously worked alongside Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, at the Department for Education. Given that Mr Johnson still suspects Mr Gove wants his job, this may have been seen as an excessive concentration of power in Mr Gove’s hands.
“Chris’s other problem was that there will be a big inquiry into what went wrong with coronavirus,” said one Whitehall official. “He would have spent a lot of time preparing his defence of what happened at the health department on his watch.”