The Daily Telegraph
Gray failed to tell ministers of any contact with Labour figures
Senior Tory urges Sir Keir Starmer to ‘publish all correspondence’ with the partygate official
SUE GRAY did not inform ministers of any contact with Labour figures to discuss her new job – even though it is a requirement under Civil Service rules.
Last week, Ms Gray resigned as second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling-up, Housing and Communities and the Cabinet Office, enabling her to take up a role with Sir Keir Starmer as his chief of staff.
Under Civil Service rules, she should have declared any meetings she had with Opposition figures to the ministers in her departments – Michael Gove and Oliver Dowden. However, it is understood that Ms Gray did not inform them of any meeting.
The appointment is controversial because Ms Gray investigated the lockdown parties in Downing Street, and her report contributed to the departure of Boris Johnson.
Labour has declined to say when talks began, although her predecessor in the role of chief of staff left in November. Ms Gray’s application to Acoba, the appointments watchdog, will be submitted today, and Labour sources indicated she would have to reveal when talks with Sir Keir began.
It is not known whether Acoba will take into account her failure to inform ministers of meetings when it decides whether to recommend a lengthy delay before she can take up her new job.
It emerged yesterday that Ms Gray had been in the running to be permanent secretary at the Department for International Trade (DIT) last autumn.
The Sunday Express said Kemi Badenoch, DIT secretary, backed her appointment, but that the promotion was apparently blocked by Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary.
Yesterday, Jonathan Ashworth, a frontbencher, said Ms Gray’s name had been connected to the chief of staff role “weeks” ago.
Mr Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, was unable to say whether she had made senior government figures aware of her conversations with his party.
In an interview with on BBC’S Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Mr Ashworth could not answer when asked three times about when conversations started between Ms Gray and his party leader, as he was “not privy to HR decisions”.
“First of all, we know that Keir Starmer has for several weeks now been looking for someone to fill this role,” Mr Ashworth said. “She was always going to be on the list when we knew there was a vacancy that emerged. She’s quite rightly going to go through a process.
“There’s proper procedures in place when a senior civil servant leaves the Civil Service and I’m sure she’ll set it all out when she has those conversations.”
On the prospect of whether Ms Gray had followed the rules, Mr Ashworth repeated he had not been “privy to the conversations” and added the mandarin “will outline all of this in the proper way, which will follow the procedures”.
“You’re asking me to speculate on something when I’ve not been privy to the conversations… You are asking to engage in a [hypothetical].”
Asked by Ms Kuenssberg if it would matter if Ms Gray “did not follow the rules to the letter”, Mr Ashworth replied: “I’m confident that Sue Gray [will] set all of this out as she follows the proper processes and procedures.”
Speaking on the same programme, Chris Heaton-harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, urged Sir Keir to publish all of his correspondence with Ms Gray.
“Labour politicians, in the past, have raised lots of questions about civil servants who’ve immediately moved into positions on the other side of the fence,” he said. “So I think the simplest way to solve this situation is for Keir Starmer just to publish all the information or all the messages and stuff they had with Sue Gray at that time.”
If Sue Gray becomes Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, she would be setting a dangerous precedent. Her appointment would be both unprecedented and unconstitutional.
Lord Kerslake, a former head of the Home Civil Service, has compared it to the appointment of Jonathan Powell as Tony Blair’s chief of staff in 1995. But the circumstances are quite different. Powell was comparatively junior – a second secretary in the Foreign Office – and his postings were mainly abroad. Sue Gray, by contrast, is a senior official who has worked at the very centre of government.
She is best known for her work on ethics and propriety, but since 2018 she has, in fact, been in policymaking roles, responsible for finance in Northern Ireland, and more recently as second secretary in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, for policy on the Union and the constitution under the ministerial leadership of Michael Gove. She was also the sponsor for the Grenfell Tower and Infected Blood independent inquiries.
She has, therefore, been in senior and sensitive policymaking roles involving day-to-day contact with key governmental decision-makers. She has had access to privileged information, not publicly available. Were it to be made available to Sir Keir Starmer, it would give Labour an improper advantage in political battles with the Government.
The Civil Service code requires officials not to take part in any activities that might involve the disclosure of official information or draw upon experience in their official capacity without prior approval from the head of their department. How is that provision to be monitored and enforced? Were Sue Gray to seek approval from her boss, the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, she would be putting him in a highly embarrassing position, since he too might have to work for Starmer, were there to be a Labour government.
So we have to rely upon Sue Gray being a “good chap”, in Peter Hennessy’s famous words. But leaping from a post requiring political impartiality to work for the Leader of the Opposition must cast some doubt on Sue Gray’s credentials as a “good chap”.
Some Conservatives have long believed that the Civil Service veers to the Left, is hostile to Brexit and seeks to frustrate the policies of Tory governments. I have never shared that view. Indeed, I greatly admire the skill with which officials implement the policies of different governments.
Nevertheless, the damage to the Civil Service could be severe if senior officials can resign from their posts to jump immediately into a job with a party whose policies are opposed to those of the government that they have served. It would be unsurprising if ministers, in consequence, were to lose confidence in their senior officials. Were that to happen, the cause of good government would suffer. So would the country.
There is a further complication. For Sue Gray has published reports on the partygate allegations concerning former prime minister Boris Johnson, which condemn him for breaking lockdown rules. Was she being considered for a post with the Labour Party while compiling her reports?
On Channel 4 News on Friday, Keir Starmer was evasive as to when the approach was first made, saying merely that everyone knew that he was seeking a chief of staff. Presumably, if the approach had been made after publication, Starmer would have said so. The issue is important, since, if the approach was made before publication, the hope of future employment might – even if only subconsciously – have influenced its content. So it would not be possible any longer to regard Sue Gray as an impartial investigator.
Sue Gray is required to seek advice on the appointment from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments – Acoba – whom she has, apparently, not yet approached. But here too there is a complication. For it is alleged that Sue Gray sat on the committee that appointed three of the eight members of Acoba. These three would presumably have to recuse themselves from giving advice.
Acoba, in any case, can only advise. It has no enforcement powers. The Prime Minister could, in theory, veto the appointment, but that would put him in an embarrassing position.
As a former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer knows the conventions of the constitution better than most. He should never have approached a senior civil servant with an offer of a post; and Sue Gray, if she wishes to maintain her reputation for integrity, should turn it down.