Hell’s bells, what’s up with the women of Westminster? A second high-profile woman in two days is being accused by senior government figures of breaching trust and breaking delicate confidences.
The first to be accused was TV presenter and author, Isabel Oakeshott, over the leaking of private WhatsApp messages from Matt Hancock, former health minister, in what’s been dubbed the Lockdown Files. Hancock has accused her of breaking private agreements.
Step forward top civil servant and Partygate sleuth, Sue Gray, who has quit her job as second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to take up the role as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. This is the same Gray who led the investigation into the lockdown parties held in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street, and was author of the report which found “a failure of leadership and judgement” in Number 10 during his premiership.
Senior government figures are furious about Gray’s appointment, revealed by Sky News this afternoon, claiming that someone so close to the machinery and machinations of government should not be able to just hop off to join the opposition. Or indeed, as one insider asked, has she always been working for the opposition? Others say her appointment should be blocked on the grounds that Gray has broken the civil service code of neutrality by taking up the Starmer role.
The daughter of Irish immigrants, she has family connections with Labour: her son, Liam Conlon, is the chair of Labour’s Irish Society. This was a group once led by Starmer’s director of communications, Matthew Doyle. As you might expect, Boris loyalist Nadie Dorries said Gray’s appointment was “not surprising” – claiming the Partygate report was a “stitch up” of the former PM by civil servants.One Red waller MP, Mark Jenkinson, responded to Gray’s switch from the indepence of the civil service to political life on Twitter, saying “all part of the plan” with the emoji of a pair of eyes .
Gray’s has a formidable reputation for knowing what’s going on inside the Whitehall machine, having served as the chief enforcer of ministerial behaviour while in charge of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office between 2012 and 2018.
One minister once said it is Gray who “runs the country” while former minister Oliver Letwin wrote of her: “Unless she agrees, things just don’t happen. Cabinet reshuffles, departmental reorganizations, the whole lot – it’s all down to Sue Gray”.
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So Gray’s parachuting into the Starmer camp looks like a real coup for the PM-in-waiting. It’s not known when Gary takes on the new job but she has already left the old one. Her appointment is now being scrutinised by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), which checks on all new roles taken on by former ministers and officials. Theoretically, the Prime Minister has the final say on all such appointments.
Starmer is not the first leader of the opposition to recruit from the civil service: Tony Blair hired the former diplomat Jonathan Powell while Labour was in opposition in 1995. Powell went on to be No 10’s first chief staff and was key to the Northern Ireland peace talks before the Good Friday Agreement.
If and when Starmer makes it to No 10, Gray will be back at the seat of power. And maybe celebrate with her own version of Partygate.
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