Starmer hiring Sue Gray is a risky decision—but it could pay off

The appointment does not undermine Gray’s partygate inquiry. But it could raise questions about civil service impartiality

March 04, 2023
Sue Gray has been appointed Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. Image: Ian Davidson/Alamy Live News
Sue Gray has been appointed Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. Image: Ian Davidson/Alamy Live News

“Weak point, shout louder”—the mantra of struggling preachers down the ages—has been adopted in full by Conservative right-wingers of late. The shrieks of horror that Keir Starmer has appointed the senior civil servant Sue Gray as his chief of staff are disproportionate. The attempts to suggest that her decision to accept the job means her partygate inquiry was a politically motivated smear are absurd. 

The facts speak for themselves. Even as Jacob Rees-Mogg was claiming that Gray’s conclusions now looked “like a left-wing stitch up”, the Commons Privileges Committee published new photographs showing Boris Johnson at multiple Downing Street gatherings, surrounded by bottles of booze. In a damning interim report, the cross-party group of MPs said the evidence strongly suggested that breaches of the lockdown rules would have been “obvious” to the former prime minister at several events. After months of investigation, the committee identified four ways in which Johnson may have misled parliament.  

Johnson, always keen to discredit anyone who queries his conduct, insisted that it was “surreal” to discover that the committee was planning to rely on what he slyly called “evidence culled and orchestrated by Sue Gray.” His carefully worded statement, designed to embarrass the MPs into ignoring what they can see with their own eyes, said: “I leave it to others to decide how much confidence may now be placed in her inquiry.”

The former prime minister wants to muddy the waters in order to obscure his own misdeeds. But, as the documents released by the Privileges Committee show, even his director of communications at the time raised concerns about one party, sending a message on WhatsApp which read: “I’m struggling to come up with a way this one is within the rules in my head.” Indeed, the former prime minister is quoted as describing an event in Number 10 as “probably the most unsocially-distanced gathering in the UK right now”. 

It wasn’t Gray—famous for her punctiliousness and propriety—who was allegedly wheeling suitcases of wine into Downing Street at the height of the coronavirus crisis or plugging in the karaoke machine for the lockdown-busting parties. Nor was it the former civil servant who “ambushed” Johnson with a cake in the cabinet room. 

Her report was highly critical of the former prime minister because he presided over a culture of rule-breaking in Number 10. It now appears he lied in an attempt to cover it up. That is not a left-wing conspiracy. Quite the opposite.

The best civil servants have the courage to speak truth to power. “It’s ridiculous to try to make this anything to do with partygate,” says one former permanent secretary. “The risk is that that distracts from the really worrying thing” that a serving senior official would resign and go to work for the opposition. 

There is genuine disquiet at a very senior level in Whitehall that a civil servant who has always been seen as a champion of impartiality should decide to “jump ship” and ally herself to one political party in the year before a probable general election. One senior source, who has worked closely with Gray, says it is “very bad” for the reputation of the civil service as a whole. “I’m in a total head spin, it’s really extraordinary,” the insider said. “It’s completely unprecedented; it’s sent a huge shockwave across Whitehall. People who care about the civil service are really upset. It undermines the relationship with ministers and is a massive breach of trust. It’s not like this can start and end with Sue, it feels like a nail in the coffin of impartiality.”

To her colleagues, Gray, a former head of propriety and ethics, has always been “the high priestess of the rules” who was not afraid to challenge politicians or officials when she felt they had stepped over the line. Now many of them feel that she herself has breached the civil service code of honour. “Impartiality is a religion,” says the senior Whitehall source. “It’s unimaginable to most of us” that you would become a political figure “after you have been such a senior civil servant. It’s like losing your faith. For the civil service this is really bad.” 

Alex Thomas, a former official who now works at the Institute for Government, said the appointment was “unusual” and raised “tricky questions” for the civil service. But the appointment of a senior civil servant to a political role is perhaps not as unprecedented as many think. Jonathan Powell was a diplomat before becoming Tony Blair’s chief of staff, and David Frost also worked for the Foreign Office before becoming a special adviser and then accepting the role of Johnson’s Brexit negotiator.  

Gray’s personal integrity is not in doubt. There is no reason why she should suddenly turn into a highly political operator as chief of staff. It is only relatively recently that Machiavellian figures like Dominic Cummings have held what was traditionally a far more technocratic role.  

The hope is that Starmer’s decision to appoint her shows he wants a return to proper process and good government in Whitehall, helped by an experienced official who knows how to run the machine. If this is the case, then Gray may see it as her duty to go into Number 10 to reinforce the need for greater probity and indeed civil service independence. The real test will be when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will. Will she still be willing to speak truth to power as chief of staff?