Late last week, Sky News broke the story that the former senior civil servant, Sue Gray, was to become Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. Some saw it as a shrewd coup while others immediately painted her as a fifth columnist.
However, those latter voices became silent when the reason for her departure from Whitehall became known: Simon Case, the beleaguered Cabinet Secretary, had blocked a proposed promotion for her.
Gray is known for her insider knowledge of government policy, ministers and departments, as well as issues related to ethics and security. This makes her appointment a masterstroke by Starmer, while her loss to the civil service is considered to be an appalling blunder by Rishi Sunak, who failed to intervene.
After the revelation of Gray’s appointment, parts of social media exploded with conspiracy theories. They were mostly around the idea she had brought about Boris Johnson’s downfall after she undertook an investigation into “Partygate”. The usual suspects weighing in have included Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries and Back Boris petition-backer Lord Cruddas.
Gray’s career moves
The furore was surprising, given that Johnson had personally appointed Gray to head the investigation and had afterwards claimed he had been exonerated.
Gray was the Second Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet office. The reason she was asked to take on the investigation was because Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, who was originally slated to do it, had to recuse himself after it was leaked he had personally attended some of the parties that fell under the investigation.
The story of Gray’s appointment began with Sunak’s reshuffle in February, where Kemi Badenoch increased her international trade portfolio to include business. As a result, she requested Gray to be her department’s Permanent Secretary. This role is the most senior civil servant of a given department or ministry. However, according to the Daily Express, it appears Cabinet Secretary Simon Case vetoed Gray’s candidacy on a technicality because she was “not of the right grade to be promoted to permanent secretary”. The impact of this was devastating for Gray.
Antagonism between Gray and Case
The irony is that the same can be said for Simon Case himself. He had never held a senior civil servant job before being drafted in to be the No. 10 Permanent Secretary. Just three months later, he was appointed Cabinet Secretary (CS) by Johnson –so he was taking on the most senior role in the whole of the civil service without going through an application process. This raised eyebrows, not just because at 41, he was the youngest CS in over a century, but also because he didn’t have much-needed experience of the Treasury, which is where the CS is usually drawn from.
There are rumours that Case and Gray may have had a falling out years ago when he was junior to her in the Cabinet Office. Added to this, there is some snobbery about Gray who was not part of the Whitehall civil service Oxbridge club. Instead, she is a former pub landlady and came up through the ranks.
Additionally, while her report on Partygate was not damning of Johnson, it was very critical of her fellow civil servants, for whom Case is boss. It is suggested that there may have been some payback.
Controversy has followed Case. The Times recently reported he “appears to have been involved in facilitating and clearing an £800,000 loan to Boris Johnson and deciding it could be kept secret.” Just this last week Case has been criticised in relation to the WhatsApp (WA) message dump by journalist Isabel Oakeshott in the Telegraph.
Aside from being inappropriately chatty with ministers in WA messages, he has been implicated in keeping out of the news the fact that Sunak’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme was causing worrying spikes in Covid cases. In another message, he found it “hilarious” that travellers returning to the UK in early 2021 had to isolate in hotels at their own expense.
A win for Starmer
Gray’s move to join the Labour Party fits into the narrative that she played a role in Boris Johnson’s downfall. However, it is more likely that her ambition had been thwarted, and Starmer’s offer was a pragmatic decision on her part. If, as will probably happen after the next General Election, Starmer becomes Prime Minister, Gray will effectively rank above the Cabinet Secretary and can rule the roost. Additionally, she will get what she wants and probably ultimately a seat in the Lords.
The win for Starmer is that he benefits from Gray’s expertise on, for example, security issues, government policies, and ministers. She also knows how best to manipulate and run the civil service. Former ministers say that even back in 2010, when the coalition government began, to get things done she was the civil servant they needed to talk to.
But outside of intimate knowledge of the civil service, The Express noted, “She has worked in the Cabinet Office and knows all the plans and intricacies of government policies, all the rows between ministers and departments, and as the person in charge of propriety and ethics, she knows all the issues about individual ministers.”
However, she may not be able to put that knowledge to immediate use if she is required to take up to two years ‘gardening leave’ between roles. That question remains open.
Having no ministerial experience himself, in Sue Gray, Starmer is getting someone with a wealth of insider knowledge which will prove invaluable when he finally becomes Prime Minister.