Voices: Case closed: Was this the most excruciating day in the Covid Inquiry so far?

There’s a perception about government – and there’s the reality they keep hidden away.

While Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer were out weaving sunny fairy tales to stage-managed crowds of worshippers, the ghastly truths about recent years at No 10 were being unpeeled in jaw-clenching, hideous detail in an austere room in Paddington.

Simon Case, the most reluctant whistleblower ever, was on the witness stand at the Covid-19 Inquiry. And he hated it. Stress oozed from every limb. Eyes blinking, hands rubbing together, head lolling backwards when trying (and usually failing) to remember embarrassing details.

“A rat’s nest,” he had called the No 10 circle under Boris Johnson. “Crisis + pygmies = toxic behaviours,” he typed on WhatsApp another time. And another: “I’ve never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country.” He’s also described Mr Johnson and his inner circle as “basically feral”.

No wonder he looked ragged: the cabinet secretary is meant to be keeper of the national secrets, the consigliere who knows where all the bodies are buried and doesn’t breathe a word. The man who can discreetly look into a £58,000 fancy wallpaper makeover or smooth through an £800,000 loan. But Case turns out to have been an absolute blabbermouth on social media. Or as Hugo Keith, the inquiry QC, gently put it, “a prolific user”.

Case’s grilling was delayed from autumn by an undisclosed medical problem. He arrived with a walking stick. Behind his suit and pressed cuffs was a man who looked traumatised, like he’d just come home from the Somme.

Especially embarrassing for a guy who did a stint as director of strategy at the GCHQ spy centre, he had to confess to hamfistedly deleting all the messages from nine WhatsApp groups. Happily for posterity, the inquiry obtained his X-rated outpourings from other witnesses.

“It’s my own idiocy and nothing else,” squirmed the man who is still cabinet secretary, assuring Lady Hallett he had actually been trying to transfer them to safe-keeping for the inquiry.

Let’s just say that eyebrows shot up when this Cambridge-educated high-flyer, whose job includes appointing the chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, used the Boris Johnson excuse that he’s a silly old duffer when it comes to tech.

Mr Keith was not impressed. “Why did you delete only some groups?” he asked pointedly. “Why not use the IT department?”

“Lesson learned,” croaked Case. “I should not try this sort of thing again.” Keith did not press the matter. There was no need.

Outside, in the alternate reality of the general election, Sunak visited a bottling plant in the Vale of Glamorgan. “Are you looking forward to all the football?” he blurted, forgetting that Wales did not qualify. Meanwhile, Starmer stopped to coo over a baby in Gillingham, Kent.

The inquiry turned to Sunak’s virus-friendly “Eat Out to Help Out” policy of summer 2020. Astonishingly, Case knew nothing in advance, thanks to the secrecy that Chancellor Sunak maintained.

He described agonising, inconclusive debates in No 10 as cases soared in the autumn, with Johnson’s ministers ultimately failing to decide between circuit breakers, tiers and lockdown until too late to save lives. “Yes,” he confirmed when asked if the government had been “buffeted by internal and external pressures”.

On the eve of the inevitable second lockdown, Case wrote to fellow civil servant Helen MacNamara: “The state has failed and we have some massive questions to ask ourselves.”

Asked about this damning verdict on the officialdom he led, Case looked close to tears.

Asked for the root cause of this stasis, he said: “Between us, we could not get the right balance of personalities and people…” A long pause while he grappled with his emotions. “There were some dark days when we felt we could not get it right.”

About day-to-day government, Mr Case said: “It was definitely dysfunctional and it was difficult, oddly enough, sclerotic isn’t quite the right word...”

Case apologised early in the hearing for his blunt WhatsApp messages which he called “very raw, in-the-moment, human expressions”. Actually, they were the best of his evidence – unspun, unedited, and sometimes hilariously sneaky.

It was like discovering a celebrity episode of The Traitors as he went around fellow contestants whispering into their ears. One day he would be bantering on WhatsApp with Matt Hancock, another day he responded to a proposal to sack the amorous former health secretary with: “I think that’s a great move.” One day he was vowing never to undermine Mark Sedwill, his predecessor as cabinet secretary, another he typed to a colleague: “He is toast and no one will mourn his passing.”

But there were also outbursts that told cold truths about the state of No 10 under Boris Johnson when Covid was claiming tens of thousands of lives each month. There was a “culture of fear” around Dominic Cummings.

MacNamara was “horrified” by a proposal to experiment secretly on schoolchildren by having different rules in different areas. “The arrogance and the waste,” she said. “And the contempt for cabinet.” Case responded: “Real lives being played with here.”

MacNamara also commented: “This has been the most actively sexist environment I have ever worked in ... the stories I’ve had from women are shocking.”

No wonder an official that Case invited to take a big No 10 job, typed back: “Too mad to touch.” Asked about the dysfunction, Case looked utterly bleak: “Good people were just being smashed to pieces,” he said.

Ironically, the messages revealed Case once scoffed: “The PM is mad if he doesn’t think his WhatsApp messages will be made public.”

Somewhat plaintively, he grumbled to Lady Hallett that past historical figures had never had to suffer their private chats being pored over in public. During three years researching his PhD at Kew, he found “the best you get is a handwritten note from Churchill in the margins”.

There was nothing new about Partygate, except he said the illicit gatherings at No 10 under his nose would have been seen as “a terrible insult” to the bereaved.

Case has now been cabinet secretary to Johnson, Liz Truss and Sunak. If the polls don’t change, he will be the top civil servant who ushers a brand new prime minister through the door of No 10 on 5 July. For his sake, let’s hope he was nice to Sue Gray.

That is also when, bar an earthquake, Keir Starmer will leave the sunlit world of the political campaign trail for the shady basement of its engine room. At least he now knows what to expect.