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Sir Alex Chisholm is to step down as permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office next spring, he announced to senior colleagues on Friday.
The news that one of the most senior mandarins in Whitehall is leaving government in the new year follows Simon Case, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, taking a period of leave on medical grounds in recent weeks.
While Case’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic has come under intense scrutiny during the official inquiry into the coronavirus crisis, government insiders said Chisholm was not expected to face similarly embarrassing disclosures, adding that he played a comparatively smaller part in the state’s response.
One government insider said Chisholm had decided to step down after serving a long stint at the most senior levels of Whitehall, having previously been permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The insider added that Chisholm, who was appointed to his current role in April 2020, had made the Cabinet Office “more coherent and collaborative” and successfully launched a scheme moving civil service jobs out of London.
He was also praised by colleagues for modernising cross-departmental functions in Whitehall, such as those dealing with finance and procurement.
Chisholm will remain in post until March to allow time for the government to appoint his successor.
It will be an open competition, with senior business leaders eligible to apply, according to officials.
The Cabinet Office said: “Sir Alex Chisholm has announced his decision not to seek a further term as chief operating officer for the civil service and Cabinet Office permanent secretary, and will leave the Cabinet Office at the end of his four-year contract next spring. A recruitment process will begin shortly for his successor.”
The civil service has undergone major upheavals in its leadership in recent years, including during the turmoil that accompanied the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Case was brought in to run the civil service in 2020 after Sir Mark Sedwill, his predecessor, was effectively forced out by allies of the then prime minister Boris Johnson.
But Case was quickly left in despair. Private WhatsApp messages shown to the Covid inquiry last month revealed that Case told colleagues in September 2020 that Johnson “cannot lead” and was making government “impossible”.
Many civil servants say they want more robust leadership at the top of Whitehall and more protection from attacks by politicians.
During her short stint as prime minister, Liz Truss sacked the then Treasury permanent secretary Sir Tom Scholar.