Keir and Gray ‘broke at least 1 of 4 sleaze rules over job offer’
SIR Keir Starmer was accused yesterday of playing ‘fast and loose’ with anti-sleaze rules over his controversial job offer to the senior civil servant who led the Partygate investigation.
In a fiery Commons debate, ministers said at least one of four transparency rules was apparently broken during ‘covert’ talks between Labour and Sue Gray about making her Sir Keir’s chief of staff.
Furious Tory MPs branded the fiasco a ‘grubby scandal’ which has cast a ‘dark stain on democracy’.
Others said it had inflicted ‘ immense damage’ on the civil service’s reputation for impartiality and urged Labour to ‘come clean’ by publishing details of its conversations with Ms Gray.
Sir Keir was also challenged to ‘ come out of hiding’ as he failed to attend the debate, with the party last night still refusing to disclose any details.
Earlier, during an LBC interview, the Labour leader squirmed as he refused nine times to say when Ms Gray was first approached about the job.
Ms Gray, who conducted the Partygate probe which contributed to Boris Johnson’s downfall, dramatically quit her senior civil service role on Thursday to become Sir Keir’s chief of staff. Allies of Mr Johnson claim it shows her report into Downing Street gatherings during the pandemic was a Labour ‘stitch-up’.
They say it also undermines the Commons Privileges Committee investigation into whether the former prime minister misled the Commons over what he knew about lockdown breaches.
Opening yesterday’s debate, Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin set out four rules which may have been breached.
One required Ms Gray to seek approval from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments ( Acoba) watchdog before the job offer was announced. But Mr Quin said this was apparently yet to be done.
Three other rules may also have been breached, he added. One involves declaring on an ‘ongoing basis’ any ‘outside interests which may give rise to an actual or perceived conflict of interest’.
It also includes clearing contact between civil servants and leading members of the Opposition with ministers, and, fourthly, that senior officials should ‘act in a way that reserves and retains confidence of ministers’.
Mr Quin said refusal to disclose details about any conversations or meetings meant all four rules may have been broken. He told the Commons: ‘Why can’t they tell us what they discussed and how often they met?
He added: ‘There are now serious questions as to whether Labour, by acting fast and loose, undermined the rules and the impartiality of the civil service. But the Labour Party can do the right thing. They can publish the list of meetings between themselves and Sue Gray.’ The Commons debate was sparked after Tory MPs tabled an urgent question over the fiasco, which was granted by the Speaker.
Sir Robert Buckland, the former justice secretary, said he was ‘deeply disappointed’ by the fiasco. Former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg accused Labour of ‘conniving in secret meetings’ with Ms Gray. Tory party deputy chairman Lee Anderson said: ‘This latest grubby scandal from Labour has cast a dark stain on democracy. The Opposition leader should come out of hiding and publish details of the meetings.’
But deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner was unapologetic, accusing Tory MPs of wasting parliamentary time to ‘indulge in conspiracy theories’.
Sir Keir told LBC that Ms Gray would reveal when she was first approached when submitting her application to Acoba, which was expected to be yesterday.
The Partygate inquiry is unfair, Boris Johnson’s top barrister has said in legal advice finally made public. Lord Pannick KC made the statement in October, but the Commons Privileges Committee at the time refused to let Mr Johnson publish the document. It was quietly published on the committee’s website on Friday.