It's supposedly illegal to die in the House of Commons, but Simon Case gave it a good try this afternoon. The Cabinet Secretary endured a torrid time before the Public Administration Committee, being grilled on everything from Partygate and public standards to Carrie Johnson and civil service cuts. For 107 minutes, Britain's top mandarin was metaphorically pummeled around the Jo Grimond room, looking at times as though he'd prefer the fate of Jeremy Thorpe's Rinka.
It was difficult to pick a lowlight from this session, though Mr S shall give it a try. Having begun the meeting in his best Sir Humphrey mode – 'the government of the day is not remotely afraid of controversial policies' – it all quickly went south from there. Despite his best efforts to stonewall, Case made a number of concessions in rapid succession: up to '30 per cent' of his time is spent on issues of 'ethics or propriety', he considered resigning if he had received an Fixed Penalty Notice and that Whitehall inquiries into the PM should 'be avoided wherever possible'.
Gulping, pausing and swallowing like a Hollywood actress attempting to win an Academy Award, Case emoted his way through his account of partygate, declaring that 'mistakes were made, boundaries weren't observed, some of the conduct described by Sue Gray would be horrifying in any situation.' He continued that 'people have let themselves down, people have apologised... all of us in senior leadership at the time must bear our share of responsibility. We must make sure this never happens again, this sort of behaviour is never seen at the heart of government'. And the Oscar goes to...
Among the interrogators of Case were Will Wragg, the baby-faced assassin, who looked to be having enormous fun at the civil servant's obvious discomfort. Topics of examination include Martin Reynolds' future career prospects (he might get a plum ambassadorial post) and Boris Johnson's missing text messages about Wallpapergate (no comment, per security). And when asked by John McDonnell if he would investigate Carrie Johnson's alleged job offer from Boris in 2018, Case's humiliation was complete. The official replied that 'An investigation under the ministerial code, under the current rubric can only be authorised by the PM.' 'Is he not keen?' shot back William Wragg, to peals of laughter from MPs.
It was Douglas Jay who gave rise to the infamous expression 'the man in Whitehall knows better'. Judging from today's performance, that certainly isn't the case.