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  1. Preparing for Power
2 March 2023

Sue Gray’s appointment as chief of staff is a coup for Keir Starmer

The recruitment of the feared civil servant is a signal of Labour’s determination to clean up politics.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Keir Starmer is set to appoint Sue Gray, the senior civil servant who investigated the partygate scandal, as his chief of staff.

Gray, who has a fearsome reputation for probing ministerial misbehaviour and ethics concerns, has left her role as head of the Union and Constitution Directorate at the Cabinet Office and is soon expected to join Starmer’s team. Her appointment will be seen as a significant achievement for the opposition leader as his party plots its course to power.

Gray has been described as “the woman who runs the government” behind closed doors and, having joined the civil service in the 1990s, she has deep knowledge of the machinery of government.

She is probably best known to the public for her report on rule-breaking lockdown parties in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street, which significantly contributed to his downfall as prime minister, but that was far from the first investigation she had conducted. Theresa May, when she was prime minister, tasked Gray with investigating claims that her closest ally, Damian Green, lied about the presence of porn on his Commons computer. Gray also led the “plebgate” inquiry into claims that former chief whip Andrew Mitchell insulted police officers on Downing Street.

[See also: Sue Gray: the civil servant who could bring down Boris Johnson]

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Gray is an astute choice for Starmer from a political perspective. The Conservatives’ lack of grip on MPs’ standards has repeatedly been criticised, both under Rishi Sunak and his predecessors, whether that relates to PPE contracts, the conduct of individual ministers or lobbying work.

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The frequency of sleaze allegations, and the fact the prime minister remains the ultimate arbiter of any investigation under the ministerial code, has led Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, to propose an independent Integrity and Ethics Commission. The watchdog would be a departure from the current system and be able to open investigations, update the ministerial code and introduce sanctions.

Opinion polls regularly show that voters do not trust politicians and believe they are all the same. This enduring malaise arguably stretches all the way back to the 2009 expenses scandal. To win, Labour has to represent hope and renewal: who better, then, to have on your team for a drive to clean up politics than Gray?

Her appointment is subject to approval by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.

[See also: The Sue Gray report: how bad is it really for Boris Johnson?]

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