Why Boris Johnson poached Prince William’s right-hand man

Boris’s new permanent secretary is a complicated choice for No. 10

13 June 2020

9:00 AM

13 June 2020

9:00 AM

The appointment of Simon Case to the role of No. 10’s new permanent secretary last month is already creating an interesting new power dynamic in Boris Johnson’s top team. Dominic Cummings, Downing Street’s resident grenade-thrower, is now working with someone more adept at defusing bombs. Case, a Barbour–wearing career civil servant, was poached from Kensington Palace, where he was Prince William’s right-hand man, by cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill. In his new role, Case sees anything Covid-related that crosses the Prime Minister’s desk. He is being hailed as the man to rescue the government’s erratic handling of the coronavirus crisis.

His experience with the dysfunctional royal household will stand him in good stead. As private secretary to the Duke of Cambridge, Case modernised William and Kate’s operation, turning the Cambridges into the royal family’s greatest PR weapon following Harry and Meghan’s departure in January.

Despite having served under David Cameron and Theresa May and at GCHQ, Case is a complicated choice for No. 10. He may be a natural bedfellow for Johnson — he’s described as ‘patriotic to his core’, a ‘passionate unionist’ but also ‘a bit of a gossip’ — but what Cummings will make of his ‘slightly pompous’ approach remains to be seen.

The 41-year-old’s rise through the ranks was so rapid that Cameron was apparently all set to give him a knighthood after he served as his private secretary from 2012 to 2014. (Case was taken aside by the late cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and told it was far too early in his career to accept such an accolade.) After working as director of strategy for GCHQ from 2015 to 2016, Case returned to Downing Street in January 2016 as the principal private secretary to the prime minister, in succession to Chris Martin, who had died while in office. When Cameron was replaced by May, he continued to serve in the same role for nearly 18 months. He would ‘sometimes get on Theresa’s nerves’, but nevertheless she appointed him a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) in 2017.

Case’s media savviness would occasionally land him in hot water with May’s joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. On one instance he agreed to go on the record to deny a Mail on Sunday headline: ‘Furious mandarins who feel “sidelined” by PM’s Brummie Rasputin’ — a reference to Nick Timothy. Case is also suspected of being the author of a Guardian piece by a senior GCHQ officer called ‘Peter’, explaining why the intelligence services needed to collect bulk data to do its work, which was published when he was working there.

He took up his post as director-general for the UK-EU Partnership in the spring of 2017, a month before the Conservatives’ disastrous general election. He was, it is said, ‘not a part’ of the ‘tight inner circle’ of Olly Robbins, May’s Europe adviser — which may endear him to Cummings. According to someone who worked closely with Case on Brexit, he boasted the rare quality in a civil servant of ‘being able to see across both sides of the EU divide’. The source added: ‘Simon’s the kind of guy who signs up to serve Queen and country. He could absolutely understand why people voted to leave.’

A year spent working on the difficult Northern Ireland borders issue made him want to leave politics for a quieter life at Kensington Palace in March 2018, two months before Harry and Meghan’s wedding. Little did he know that the deteriorating relationship between the royal brothers would explode into a constitutional crisis, with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex stepping down as senior royals two years later. Case forged a close partnership with the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Edward Young, the most powerful aide at Buckingham Palace, and became instrumental in elevating William’s image as a statesman, to the disquiet of Harry, who felt pushed out. It is notable that on Case’s watch William and Kate were revealed to have flown by budget airline to Balmoral, after Harry and Meghan had ‘snubbed’ the Queen to fly by private jet to Elton John’s mansion in Nice.

Little wonder, then, that Johnson felt the need to personally tele-phone the second in line to the throne to ask permission to borrow his invaluable ‘Man Friday’ for No. 10. Although the move is being described as a ‘secondment’, there is not much expectation that Case will return to the palace.

Whether he succeeds as permanent secretary won’t just depend on his relationship with the PM, but also on Sir Mark Sedwill, who is accused of wielding too much power by holding the dual roles of both cabinet secretary and national security adviser. Someone who knows both men commented: ‘There is no harm in Mark having one of his people close to the Covid action.’ Another source said that Case’s ability to ‘get things done’ will earn Cummings’s respect. But with his years of Downing Street experience, he could be seen as a threat.

According to one former Downing Street aide: ‘He has the ability to forge relationships across the civil service and political divide which will make him invaluable to the PM. That combination of Whitehall experience and political clout is quite a rare thing.’ The insider observed that, with the Barnard Castle debacle still fresh in the memory: ‘In a crisis people start to get quite high and mighty and holier than thou. They never concede that the stress of it all has affected them. Simon isn’t like that. He’s got a good eye for the absurd and pointing it out.’

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Camilla Tominey is an associate editor at the Daily Telegraph.

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