Rishi Sunak has refused three times to say he has confidence that Simon Case will remain the Cabinet Secretary until the next election, amid a growing backlash to his pandemic-era WhatsApp messages.
The Prime Minister was on Tuesday night asked to comment on speculation that Britain’s most senior civil servant was preparing to stand down, but initially said only that he “continues to support the government’s agenda,” including on small boat crossings.
It came as Labour sources said Sir Keir Starmer would sack Mr Case if he was to win the next election and The Telegraph revealed new WhatsApp messages in which he criticised “bouncing Boris” Johnson for being too optimistic about the economy during the pandemic.
The 44-year-old mandarin has been accused of “naivety” after a tranche of messages obtained by this newspaper showed he mocked people forced to quarantine in hotels during the pandemic and described Mr Sunak as “bonkers”.
The criticism in Whitehall has been led by other senior civil servants, who believe his leadership has been “relatively weak,” a source said.
The episode has reportedly left Mr Case considering resigning from the role, with some close to him suggesting he could take up a second career in academia.
Asked for a third time about the controversy in a press conference on Tuesday, Mr Sunak said he looked forward to working with Mr Case “for a very long time to come” but declined to say whether he thought he would still be in post by the next election.
Cabinet Secretaries typically remain in post in the period before and after a general election to oversee the transition between administrations, leading to speculation in Whitehall that this is a “natural moment for him to do it”.
Mr Case’s allies were fighting back on Tuesday night, insisting that he has no intention of resigning and is pushing ahead with plans for high profile events as late as this summer, while a Downing Street source said Mr Sunak “retains full confidence in the Cabinet Secretary”.
A spokesman for Sir Keir denied that he had already decided to sack Mr Case if Labour wins the next election.
In a briefing with reporters and press conference on Tuesday Mr Sunak was asked three times whether he believed Mr Case would remain in post and refused to address the issue directly, claiming he had “hadn’t actually seen any of the messages”.
Cabinet Office sources pointed to the end of his third answer, where he praised Mr Case’s record in government, adding: “I’m very grateful to him for that and I look forward to working with him for a very long time to come quite frankly.”