Boris Johnson’s Captain Dull lets MPs’ best shots bounce off him | Patrick Wintour

Faced with tough questions over the Greensill affair and his own leak inquiry, cabinet secretary Simon Case gave nothing away

Standing atop the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, looked down from the flight deck and airily dismissed the stories of sleaze and infighting in Downing Street as “not serious, just comedy gossip”.

“The prime minister has been utterly focused on delivering, alongside cabinet colleagues, the response to Covid.”

So focussed that he had found time on Thursday to ring friendly newspaper editors to put a bomb under his erstwhile genius adviser Dominic Cummings. Dom was the “chatty rat” and serial leaker trying to scuttle his otherwise smoothly run operation.

Boris Johnson has long experience dealing with the estranged and jilted. He must have presumed Dom, suitably shamed, would be silenced and submerge himself, leaving the waters to lap over him.

But normal rules of engagement do not apply to Cummings. He has a highly developed sense of revenge, or what he describes as “aggressive defence”.

And Boris would have known this, if he had bothered to read Cummings’s blog. Nuclear Dom quotes his hero Otto von Bismarck on the art of getting your own back. “When one person puts a hand in his pocket, the other person is already drawing his gun …”

And so it came to pass. While Johnson was gingerly putting his hand in his pocket Cummings had already drawn his gun, returning fire with a destructive 1,000-word memo.

Perhaps the only man not in the line of fire was Simon Case, the new cabinet secretary, and, by magnificent chance, he was due to appear in front of the public administration select committee on Monday.

Imagine his dilemma. There is a “career psychopath” on the loose. He could be armed with tapes and WhatsApp message threads. And there is the prime minister. The man you must defend.

It is for these moments cabinet secretaries are born. Or at least trained. Playing dumb cannot come easily to someone this smart, but he pulled it off.

Case came across as someone who had never been in Downing Street, and never read a newspaper.

He feared misleading the committee, so thought it best to politely give MPs – nothing. Not so much economical with the actualité as non-existent with the actualité.

The whole Greensill affair – the merry-go-round between civil servants and the private sector – appeared to have passed him by. He wasawaiting answers from the Boardman review.

Then there was the delicate matter of his own inquiry into who bounced Johnson into a second shutdown by leaking the plan two weeks before they were announced.

This could have been a banana skin for a less skilled mandarin; not for Captain Dull.

MPs tried hard. They quoted from Cummings’s blog. They asked him the same questions in different ways, repeatedly. They looked exasperated. He didn’t.

Case told the committee his inquiry into all this was still continuing, and – wait for it – he could not say much more than that.

Methods might be compromised. It was possible the inquiry, already six months old, might conclude inconclusively.

This left his leak inquiry in the happy position of all Whitehall leak inquiries – ongoing.

Such is the civil service’s investigatory skills that it would still be examining the Bayeux Tapestry to determine whether King Harold died through natural causes.

(The value of such leak inquiries in a Johnson government is, of course,debatable. Take Gavin Williamson. Then the defence secretary, he was sacked by Theresa May after being fingered by a previous cabinet secretary for having leaked information about Huawei. But Johnson saw no “chatty rat”. Rather, he was an upstanding man. An education secretary, in fact. No better chap to oversee the welfare of England’s children through Covid-19.)

Having sidestepped or straight-batted every question thrown at him, Case was not going to be undone when MPs started quizzing him about the decor in the Downing Street flat.

Earlier in the day, Wallace had insisted that Johnson had paid for any refurbishments out of his own pocket.

No wonder Johnson was furious. That wasn’t the plan at all. Wallace had left out at least four preceding relevant stages.

The first was when the prime ministeralighted upon the ever so chichi, but ever so expensive, Lulu Lytle catalogue. Perhaps he was seduced by the Fresco Pink cloister garden fabric, described as “reminiscent of Fra Angelico’s depiction of the Annunciation at San Marco”. The second was when he looked at the prices.

The third was when he tried to cover up that he had found a gullible Tory donor to foot the bill.

And the fourth was that when this was revealed, he hurriedly rang a confused Lulu Lytle accounts department to say no, he was after all paying himself.

Case – who struck me as a man who could never be knowingly oversold – came up with his best defence. And he somehow managed to keep a straight face saying it.

“The prime minister has asked me to conduct a review into how this has been done,” he declared.

By the session’s close, so many reviews were proliferating that he agreed that an assessment, not a review, was advisable.

It was needed to assess whether he had enough resources to conduct all the different reviews.


Patrick Wintour

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Boris Johnson fails to bring Tories sunshine in excruciating PMQs | John Crace
Their clown prince resorts to telling bare-faced lies, making even Corbyn look dignified in the process

John Crace

04, Sep, 2019 @7:29 PM

Article image
Muzzling the watchdogs? Boris Johnson’s record with regulators
The Paterson affair is not the first time the PM has been accused of trying to undermine independent scrutiny

Peter Walker Political correspondent

05, Nov, 2021 @4:31 PM

Article image
Tories do their best to trash what remains of their reputation | John Crace
The committee on standards found Owen Paterson had committed an ‘egregious’ breach: it must be time for a new committee

John Crace

03, Nov, 2021 @8:08 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson’s downfall: a corrosive culture of cronyism
Analysis: Partygate was the last straw, but the long view of history will count a broader catalogue of corruption

Felicity Lawrence and David Conn

08, Jul, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Boris takes a leaf out of Cummings' Game Theory for Dommies | John Crace
Muddled, half-arsed, this was up there with any of May’s more pointless statements

John Crace

02, Sep, 2019 @7:19 PM

Article image
Parties, Paterson and prorogation: lowlights of Boris Johnson’s tenure
After botched Covid policies, Brexit wrangling and a string of U-turns and scandals, his time is finally up

Esther Addley

02, Sep, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson’s best defence is he’s a known liar incapable of lying | John Crace
When the dust finally clears on Boris’s parties, his lawyer won’t be looking back on this as his finest hour

John Crace

21, Mar, 2023 @7:15 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson’s legacy will be shaped by Covid inquiry appearance
Discredited ex-PM faces a demolition job in one of the few policy areas to which he and his allies still cling

Peter Walker Deputy political editor

02, Dec, 2023 @7:27 AM

Article image
Floundering Boris leaves no doubt: our PM is a showman out of his depth | John Crace
Clueless on health policy, clueless on benefits. Our prime minister is a showman out of his depth

John Crace

27, May, 2020 @9:41 PM

Article image
Former aide likens Boris Johnson’s exit to storming of Capitol
Cleo Watson also says PM had to be ‘house-trained’ and that he compared her to an ‘ugly old lamp’

Ben Quinn

29, Jul, 2022 @9:52 AM