Whitehall’s grandest fromage Simon Case looked affronted. Surprised, even. Dare I say it, perhaps a little hurt.
The new(ish) Cabinet Secretary had just been accused by MPs of being evasive.
Eh? Civil servants being tricksy? Choke! Cough! Splutter! Who could even think such a thing?
Mr Case had been summoned before the public affairs committee to answer questions on sleaze. I use the word ‘answer’ rather loosely – the session was a two-hour tutorial in prevarication. A masterclass in obfuscation. Sir Humphrey Appleby would have been proud. Opening salvos concentrated on his hunt for the leaker of the decision last October to institute a second national lockdown – the so-called ‘chatty rat’.
Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary and the UK’s most senior civil servant, giving evidence on the work of the Cabinet Office to the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC)
Sat with him was the head of the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team, Darren Tierney, who had tipplers’ cheeks and a neat line in ‘Search me, guv’ expressions. Forty minutes into the session and we were yet to get a satisfactory reply on anything
Case warned the committee that the culprit might never be found. Five months of rummaging had come to nothing. It seems that neither Mr Case nor any of his fellow Whitehall sleuths will be giving the Hercule Poirots or Miss Marples of this world a run for their money any time soon.
Each time a question was raised about the matter, Case simply shot his cuffs, spread his arms wide and said it was an ‘ongoing investigation’ and therefore couldn’t possibly be commented on. Variations on that answer included: ‘I’m not at liberty to say’; ‘I’m constrained by what I can say’; ‘I can’t say’; ‘I can’t discuss that’; or more elusively ‘It’s very complex’.
Interesting study, Case. Everything about him screamed mandarin. Sharply tailored blue suit, closely mown hair, beard manicured with artisanal perfection. He also wears those cruel, ice-cube-shaped spectacles which seem to be standard issue among senior Westminster officials.
Sat with him was the head of the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team, Darren Tierney, who had tipplers’ cheeks and a neat line in ‘Search me, guv’ expressions. Forty minutes into the session and we were yet to get a satisfactory reply on anything.
Worse was to follow as we segued into the thorny matter of the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s Downing Street flat. Three times David Jones (Con, Clwyd West) asked whether the original bill had been paid for with private donations. On each occasion, Case rabbited on about launching (yawn) an internal review into the matter.
Jones eventually demanded a straightforward yes or no. Long pause… ‘The Prime Minister has asked me to conduct a review.’
It was now the turn of committee chair William Wragg to get shirty. ‘Mr Case, you’ve known you’ve been coming for weeks. I’m surprised you did not come here better furnished with answers,’ he sighed. John McDonnell (Lab, Hayes and Harlington) frowned. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, Mr Case, but this is coming across like a badly scripted version of Yes, Minister.’ Get Lost, Minister, more like.
Talk eventually turned to Lex Greensill, the Aussie businessman who wingled into David Cameron’s inner Downing Street circle before offering the ex-PM a job. Here, Case became more forthcoming. Possibly because it hadn’t occurred on his watch.
Although Greensill had been touting around a business card claiming to be a Downing Street adviser, Case made it clear he was nothing of the sort.
‘What was he?’ asked Jones, eyeballs now popping with incredulity. ‘That’s unclear,’ Darren Tierney piped up. ‘Did he just pop round for a cup of tea?’ Wragg suggested, not entirely helpfully. More worryingly, there was no evidence of an employment contract. Case admitted it was all rather alarming.
John Stevenson (Con, Carlisle) asked how many other unpaid aides such as Greensill were currently operating in the civil service. It was obvious Case had no idea. But he had a least managed to find out how many mandarins held second jobs. It was about a hundred, though they were mainly tutoring positions, such as yoga instructors, apparently. Which rather gives a whole new meaning to flexible working practices.
Eventually, chairman Wragg wrapped things up and thanked Case for his time, possibly resisting the urge to add ‘if nothing else’.
Meanwhile, over in the Commons, Michael Gove faced an angry wall of noise over the PM’s alleged remarks that he would rather see ‘bodies pile high’ than face another lockdown.
In usual circumstances, Gove would make a first-class head of complaints at a lost luggage department. He radiates probity and coolness when the flak is flying. But even he was struggling for answers.
‘I was in that room, I never heard language of that kind,’ he said. ‘The idea he would say any such thing, I find incredible.’ Hmm.
Considering Boris’s aptitude for these sorts of loose-lipped, foot-in-gob remarks, many think it very credible. C’est le probleme.