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‘One last job’: Why Sue Gray turned her back on Whitehall

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LONDON — In a world of anonymity and faceless bureaucrats, Sue Gray’s name has the power to generate headlines. 

A job move by the average civil servant — even a senior one — would be met with a shrug of the shoulders by most outside their immediate circle. But the news that Gray is poised to be opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer’s chief of staff — the most powerful figure on party payroll — has sent shockwaves throughout Westminster. 

Gray, who was serving as one of the U.K.’s most senior civil servants before jumping ship last week, enjoys a prominence bordering on notoriety unrivaled in the ranks of Whitehall leadership.

She gained her extraordinary reputation at the Cabinet Office, serving as then-Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell’s right-hand woman at the heart of the Whitehall machine, eventually becoming Whitehall’s director of propriety and ethics. 

She was known as “deputy GOD,” a riff on the nickname given to her famously-powerful ex-boss. Errant political aides and Cabinet ministers alike suddenly found their careers lay in her unforgiving hands. Former Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin famously said in 2012 that Gray “runs Britain.”

“Unless she agrees,” he noted, “things just don’t happen.”

“She’s not just any civil servant,” said Alex Thomas, program director at the Institute for Government think tank and a former colleague of Gray. “She’s been at the heart of government for so long, and has years of dealing with the most sensitive stuff.”

Gray’s decision to quit Whitehall in favor of Starmer’s Labour Party is a cause for concern among many of those she leaves behind, amid fears her departure calls into question the impartiality of the civil service. 

However, conversations with friends and colleagues of Gray suggest her decision was driven less by ideology than by creeping disillusionment with her own dominion — and by a powerful sense of ambition. 

Partygate blues

Gray’s last job in the civil service focused on strengthening the Union. She got on well with Michael Gove, the leveling up secretary, and “had no compunction in bossing him around,” according to one departmental colleague.

The pair agreed on the need to find areas of compromise with the Scottish government, but there were frustrations to the role too, with the U.K. government often defaulting to a more confrontational approach — as in the recent controversy over Scotland’s gender reforms — which “did not make her job easy,” the same colleague said. 

But it was the ordeal of investigating the Partygate scandal — a series of lockdown-busting drinks events held by staff in Downing Street — that finally soured her long relationship with Whitehall. 

Gray was asked to step in and lead the government’s internal inquiry after the initial choice, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, was forced to recuse himself following revelations in POLITICO and elsewhere that he had attended suspect drinks events himself.

“She is very pissed off with the current official leadership,” a senior civil servant said. “She thinks that officialdom didn’t support her — Simon and a couple of others who were involved in the center when she was doing the report.”

The departmental colleague quoted above said the Partygate investigation had been “a tough time — she didn’t enjoy it and her family got abuse.” Her main coping mechanism appeared to be deploying pitch-black humor, they noted.

However, a third official insisted the relationship between Gray and Case remains “one of mutual respect,” as “both have been in the forefront of British government administration through some extremely testing times.”

‘One last job’

Numerous colleagues who worked alongside Gray note that, while now in her mid-60s, she appeared in no mood to step back. 

Her name had been touted by Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch as a candidate for head of that department back in October when the position became vacant, according to a fourth government official. 

However, as first reported by the Express — and confirmed to POLITICO by a person with knowledge of the process — Case was instrumental in blocking the move. 

With her chance to lead a department cut off, and the most prized position in the civil service — Case’s own job — now seemingly unreachable, Gray chose to look elsewhere for the next step up.

“She’s a do-er, and she wants to make a difference,” said Peter Cardwell, a former political adviser at the Northern Ireland Office who worked with Gray in government. “She’s done things in unexpected ways — she’s unpredictable and people need to realize that’s the way she is.”

Unexpected job moves have long been part of Gray’s modus operandi. Famously, in the 1980s, she took a break from the civil service to run a raucous pub in a border town in Northern Ireland. She returned in 2018 to run the Department of Finance in the Northern Ireland Executive — though headed back to Whitehall after being overlooked for the province’s top civil service job.

The second civil servant quoted above said: “She’s someone who enjoys being in positions of considerable power — that’s what she lives for. [Joining Labour] is a reasonable gamble that could pay off, with her in a very, very powerful position in 2024.”

“Partygate took its toll on her,” an ally of Gray added. “She is towards the end of her career, and clearly this is probably going to be her last big job. It will be an opportunity to shape something that could be quite significant.”

Labour pains

Her move from the innermost workings of government to a partisan political role has incensed many in the Conservative Party, who claim it undermines both her neutrality and that of the wider civil service.

Robert Buckland, a former Conservative justice secretary, told MPs Monday he was “deeply disappointed” by her actions, which he said showed Starmer was “not prepared to defend” the impartiality of the civil service. 

Allies of former PM Boris Johnson have gone further, keen to capitalize on the obvious questions about bias raised by her decision. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a former Cabinet minister, suggested Gray’s new role could “devalue years of advice and reports” she produced for the civil service during her career, including “her report into [Partygate], which we now know was done by a friend of the socialists.”

While Gray’s desire to take on an even more powerful role at the heart of government will surprise few who know her, the decision to actively work for Labour came as a shock to many.

One former Tory aide who clashed with Gray while in government said: “She’s never really shown her politics — which I think is about as much as I will ever defend her.”

“She’s not a tribal person,” Cardwell noted. “I don’t think she’ll be singing ‘The Red Flag’ at Labour Party conference and putting up pictures of [Labour hero] Nye Bevan in her office.”

Desperately seeking Susan

For his part, Starmer had been intent on appointing an experienced civil servant as his new chief of staff to help prepare Labour — out of power for almost 13 years — for government. Among those advising him to do so was former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, who recruited his own Downing Street chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, from the Foreign Office’s diplomatic corps. 

There was also a desire in the Labour leader’s office to hire a woman given the number of men in senior roles, including policy chief Stuart Ingham and election strategist Morgan McSweeney. 

A Labour official said Gray’s name had been “in the frame” since October last year, when Starmer’s previous chief of staff, Sam White, left his post. “She’s a serious figure who knows Whitehall inside out and can make sure we hit the ground running if we win the election,” the official added.

The same official noted Blair had written in his memoirs that he didn’t feel he became a truly effective PM until his second term in office, adding: “We won’t have that sort of time — and neither does the country.”

Gray had been reticent, however, about accepting the post so far from an election. Britain is not expected to go to the polls until mid-2024 — and even then, a Labour victory is far from assured. “She was hedging her bets, and didn’t want to come over til closer to the election,” a second Labour figure with knowledge of the discussions said. 

But when news of her discussions with Starmer were sensationally leaked to Sky News, Gray found her hand was forced.

“I don’t think this was the timing that was chosen by anybody,” the senior civil servant quoted above said: “She wouldn’t have wanted it to come out this way … There was a way to do it with more integrity.”

The only way is ethics?

The central irony of the affair is that Gray, Whitehall’s all-powerful ethics chief, now finds herself embroiled in questions of propriety. 

Like all senior U.K. civil servants, her post-Whitehall career remains subject to clearance from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), a statutory body set up to police Whitehall’s notorious revolving door with the private sector.

Although the watchdog’s reports are advisory only —with zero enforcement powers — Gray may feel duty-bound to abide by their recommendations, which may include a demand she delays starting her new role for an extended period.

Other questions about her suitability also remain. Critics point to claims that she often bends the rules when it suits her, blurring the boundaries of acceptability — one of her nicknames is “Sue Gray-area” — an approach which appears at odds with Starmer’s squeaky clean image. 

But others argue she could add some much-needed steel to Starmer’s sometimes flabby backroom operation.

“What she isn’t is a stuffed-shirt bureaucrat,” said the IfG’s Thomas. “She’s much more charismatic, much more human than that.”

Aggie Chambre contributed reporting.

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