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3 March 2023

Weaponising Sue Gray’s Labour affiliation will not end well for the Tories

The civil servant is a shrewd choice as Keir Starmer’s new chief of staff – it raises the spectre of partygate all over again.

By Zoë Grünewald

The news that Sue Gray, second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office and head of the partygate inquiry, has resigned from the Civil Service and will be taking up a new role as Labour’s chief of staff has not been taken well.

Tory MPs descended on Gray, questioning her supposed impartiality. “So much for an impartial Civil Service,” Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted, “the Gray report now looks like a left wing stitch up against a Tory Prime Minister.” This is a new attack for Conservatives to unite around: the civil servant who took down Boris Johnson was a die-hard Labourite.

Put Gray’s report into perspective. The Met Police conducted its own separate investigation and issued 126 fixed penalty notices to 83 people, including to Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. Five of Johnson’s own aides resigned in response to allegations. There is photographic evidence and many witness testimonies. Unless someone can put Gray at the scene of the crime, planting a cake and a bottle of fizz, it’ll be hard to argue that she didn’t follow the facts.

Nonetheless, there are those who would argue that her appointment raises questions about the ethics of appointing a senior, impartial civil servant to a political position in Labour’s team. Enter: the Independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), chaired by Lord Pickles. ACOBA’s job is to advise ministers and officials on whether the jobs they take on after leaving government comply with business appointment rules. Gray has already written to ACOBA about her plans.

Though ACOBA can’t technically block her appointment – it has no legal powers – their rules state that “an application is required for any new appointment or employment that individuals wish to take up during the two-year period after leaving office”. The committee will review her appointment and then provide advice, such as imposing a three-month waiting period before she can take up the role.

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ACOBA is toothless and has been ignored many times before. Boris Johnson failed to inform ACOBA that he would be resuming his £275,000-a-year column at the Telegraph after he resigned as Foreign Secretary in 2018. But, and as Rachel points out, Gray’s appointment is intended to demonstrate Labour’s commitment to integrity. To ignore ACOBA’s advice now would undermine the purpose of her hire.  

Sunak may choose to block the appointment, but that may not be wise. Firstly, it would bring the partygate row back into public discussion. Sunak somehow managed to escape the affair virtually unscathed, despite receiving a police fine. The Tories also have a famously unclean slate when it comes to bringing their friends into high places, with questions over the integrity of multiple public appointments, including the BBC chairman Richard Sharp and the former Test and Trace chief Dido Harding. Accusing Labour of corruption would open the Conservatives to similar scrutiny.

Regardless of ACOBA’s findings, it looks unlikely this row will settle anytime soon. The Conservatives have found a potential weakness in the partygate narrative and they will try to exploit it. Meanwhile, Sue Gray is destined to have the loneliest leaving do Westminster has ever seen.  

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Sue Gray’s appointment as chief of staff is a coup for Keir Starmer]

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