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Simon Case's absence has left a growing gap in government

Arrangements are in place to backfill for the cabinet secretary 

In a cabinet secretary’s absence there is no automatic process for anyone else to step in. His roles are being covered by colleagues at the moment, although no official announcement has been made. Sir Chris Wormald, the longest serving and therefore by Whitehall convention most senior permanent secretary, has stepped in to cover some parts of the job – presumably appointments, ethical and constitutional questions and liaison with other permanent secretaries.

Sir Alex Chisholm, the civil service chief operating officer and permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, will be picking up the civil service management and reform side. Emma Churchill, the head of the Economic and Domestic Secretariat, has stepped in to lead the cabinet minute-taking and sit alongside the prime minister at the cabinet table. In this way the different parts of the job are covered, though it would be helpful for there to have been proactive public transparency about what is happening – the publication of a short list of responsibilities.

Unless Case returns soon more sustainable arrangements need to be made

A cabinet secretary must of course be able to temporarily step back from the job with cover arrangements made as appropriate – just as Boris Johnson did when prime minister. But we should also recognise that the current set-up is sub-optimal. Wormald, while a very experienced official, is also leading the Department of Health and Social Care and has himself spent extensive time on the Covid inquiry. Chisholm has announced that he is leaving the civil service in the spring.

The current parcelling out of responsibilities obviously leaves a gap, because there is no substitute for a well-deployed cabinet secretary. For example, when London was rocked by marches and counter-protests on Remembrance weekend and the home secretary and Met commissioner’s relationship became dysfunctional, an operational cabinet secretary would have had the clout to step in, calm tensions and broker solutions. A cabinet secretary perspective is useful during reshuffles, major fiscal events and crises overseas. And making the links between foreign, security and domestic policy should be a key function for the top government official.

The senior role allows them to step back, not purely speaking for the prime minister, but representing the interests of government as a whole. That opens up conversations and the ability to deploy authority in ways others in No.10 and across departments cannot. At its best the cabinet secretary’s office is part of the connective tissue that solves crises and makes government function. A crucial part of Sunak’s government is missing.