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20 March 2024

The revenge of Sue Gray

From Stormont to partygate, the former civil servant specialised in problematic situations. Now she’s Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.

By Will Lloyd

It was the latest unorthodox move in a career defined by originality. A small, unobtrusive, somewhat disappointed-looking woman stood in the Northern Irish sunshine with the wind blowing through her auburn hair. This was Sue Gray on 20 May 2021. With her was Gareth Gordon, BBC News’s Northern Ireland political correspondent. Gray was doing something unheard of for a senior civil servant – or for that matter, any grade of civil servant – before or since.

She was giving a pointedly political interview, bristling with on-the-record innuendos and stinging criticisms, to a major public broadcaster. Much of what you need to know about Gray, who has since become Keir Starmer’s chief of staff (another move that left some of her old colleagues in the Cabinet Office astonished) is contained in her decision to talk to the BBC that day. After decades of slogging, silent obedience to the civil service, Gray, who has grown more, not less, radical with age, had decided to disrupt the system. A white blood cell was turning into a virus.

Gray arrived in Northern Ireland in 2018, after years cleaning up scandals in the heart of government, the Cabinet Office. That job had the rather pompous title of “director general, propriety and ethics”. The reality was more grubby than grand. In 2006, when revelations about John Prescott’s two-year affair with his diary secretary, Tracey Temple, were troubling the transition of power from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown, it was Gray who was dispatched in the middle of the night to cross-reference the then deputy prime minister for three hours. Had Prescott broken the ministerial code? Had he had sex with Temple in his ministerial car, or in his taxpayer-funded flat in Admiralty Arch?

These were the questions Gray had to ask, and the facts she had to establish. The job gave her privileged access to politicians and their secrets. And while Gray is said by many to have enjoyed that privilege, it was of a dubious kind. Nor was it one the standard Oxbridge-educated, first-class-degree-holding, introverted civil service high-flyers around her in the Cabinet Office wanted. Gray, contrastingly, joined the civil service straight from school, never went to university and spent some time in the 1990s running a job centre in the tough neighbourhood of Cricklewood in north-west London. Her allies claim that she understood “the real world” in a way that typical civil-service posh boys did not.

Jeremy Heywood, the former cabinet secretary who used Gray as a kind of human sponge, would never have to think too hard about where Prescott entertained his mistress. Neither did Gus O’Donnell, another cabinet secretary Gray worked under. “Gus and Jeremy were just as bad as each other at getting Sue to do all the difficult shit,” recalled one civil servant. This was dirty work. Speaking to Gray’s old colleagues about her time in the Cabinet Office, you discern the respect they had for her abilities (“steeliness” and “cussedness” are the words they used), but there is also an inadvertent sense that some believed that work, which was personal and intuitive rather than systematic, was beneath them. She never became a permanent secretary. Many of the Oxbridge men did.

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Not long after Heywood died in 2018 his widow, Suzanne, published a laudatory, blow-by-blow account of his career at the top of British government, What Does Jeremy Think? Gray was described to me by former colleagues as Heywood’s “protégé”, part of the “close circle” around him and “very trusted”. Yet she merits barely a dozen mentions in the book’s index. It’s as if the propriety and ethics role Gray pioneered was somehow too grotty to talk about.

Northern Ireland was supposed to be different. At Stormont, Gray became permanent secretary of the Department of Finance. In Westminster, many believed this was a prelude to Gray, who has a home and family connections in Northern Ireland, taking the top job in the civil service there. This was not, however, a belief shared by many in that organisation.

Her time at Stormont was more difficult than is generally known. “She did not behave in a conventional manner,” one Northern Irish mandarin told me. They claimed that Gray struggled to manage an organisation, a criticism that is echoed by some of her ex-colleagues in Whitehall. “The dark arts with Jeremy [Heywood] did not translate into running large-scale, complex digital systems.” After being interviewed for the job alongside two other candidates, in 2020 she failed to become head of the NI Civil Service.

Hence the interview, the BBC and the disappointment written all over Gray’s face in May 2021. “I really wanted the job, but had to get over it,” she told Gareth Gordon. “I suspect people may have thought that I perhaps was too much of a challenger, or a disrupter.” The interview, like Gray’s decision to join Starmer’s team last year, left many who worked with her in the civil service bemused and shocked.

In December 2021, Gray took over the partygate investigation after the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, recused himself. Accusations about what happened in that investigation and its subsequent fallout continue to be made by allies of Boris Johnson. Some of these claims, were they ever made public, would be major national news. It is not hard to find senior Tories, including former cabinet ministers, who are critical of Gray’s conduct and her intellect. One told me that the partygate report was “the shabbiest piece of work ever”.  They suggested Gray was employed by the secret services (which Gray denies) during the time she ran a pub near the Irish border at the height of the Troubles: “You don’t spend a year running a pub in bandit country for a career break,” they said. “Definitely a spook.”

Gray’s supporters believe she was badly treated by the civil service and the “shockingly poor management” of Case. “She hates Simon,” said one. Gray is expected to shuffle Case out of the Cabinet Office and replace him with Olly Robbins if Labour takes power. Perhaps the most important legacy of the partygate mess is that it sharpened Gray’s disappointment with the system she had spent a professional lifetime defending.

Many of Sue Gray’s former colleagues have retired. They take elaborate holidays, enjoy their pensions and attend high-minded seminars in Singapore. She has taken on one of the toughest political jobs in the country. Why? A word some use is “revenge”. “If Labour gets into power, she will go back into No 10 and be a real power in the land,” an ex-Cabinet Office source said. “Having these permanent secretaries hanging off her every word will be quite sweet for Sue.”

Starmer is said to have been “impressed” when he met Gray while he was director of public prosecutions during the coalition years, but it was Jill Cuthbertson, the director of his office, who initially put forward Gray’s name when the chief of staff job became available. Gray’s toughness and flintiness is much more of a fit with Starmer’s Labour than many realise. “She has brought stature and authority to a very young team,” one source close to Starmer’s operation said. The slightly arrogant men around the leader of the opposition are being tamed by Gray, who has been dealing with serious crises since before they had even left secondary school. Whether she can manage the machinery of government effectively if Labour takes power is a different, more difficult question.

[See also: The Kate conspiracy]


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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

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