Initially it seemed like a great coup – the appointment of the most famed civil servant in the country to the top advisory role in Keir Starmer’s team. The surprise recruitment of Sue Gray, who worked under several prime ministers as ethics adviser and then second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office, seemed to declare not only that Labour is seriously on its way back to government, but that it will restore integrity to Whitehall.
In practice, it’s declared the very opposite.
I don’t believe the absurd claim peddled by Boris Johnson supporters in the Daily Mail that Gray was part of a Labour plot to bring Johnson down. I’m sure she behaved with total propriety in her long inquiry into partygate. But, as she knows, behaviour in government is all about perception. To the public, it must look tawdry that the woman whose inquiry helped condemn Johnson – and implicated Rishi Sunak – has now defected to the opposition party. The move will blunt future Labour attacks over partygate and fuel suspicions that the party is being aided by Gray’s inside information. Though I don’t believe she would ever pass on such knowledge, it’s the appearance that counts.
Gray’s appointment is another blow to civil service impartiality, which governments of both parties have gradually eroded: from Margaret Thatcher’s employment of two civil servants, Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell, as her closest advisers, to Tony Blair giving Alastair Campbell and another Powell, brother Jonathan, the power to tell civil servants what to do. And, from David Cameron onwards, the awarding of more top government posts – such as chair of the Office for Students – to Tory cronies. Most recently, we had Kwasi Kwarteng’s sacking of Tom Scholar as permanent secretary of the Treasury for political reasons.
I had hoped that Keir Starmer – himself a former public servant – would stop all this.
The Labour leader should surely have foreseen that this move would spark an outcry: it doesn’t just undermine his judgement, it undermines Gray’s too. One of the duties of a chief of staff is to use their wisdom and experience to anticipate how politics and the media will respond, and thereby prevent mistakes. But before she’d even signed the contract, Gray botched the first assignment. I began to suspect her judgement last year when it emerged that the KC on her partygate inquiry, Daniel Stilitz, had declared his pro-Labour and anti-Brexit views on Twitter.
And will Gray’s undoubted commitment to integrity be applied to Starmer’s team? Will she insist, for example, on a fair Labour parliamentary candidate selection process rather than a semi-corrupt operation that appears to be stacked against any contenders from the left and the trade unions? I very much doubt it. If Gray causes trouble, Starmer’s street-fighting henchmen will squash her.
If the Labour leader wanted to harness her talents, there was a much more obvious move (now no longer possible). Upon entering Downing Street, few would have complained if Starmer had eased out Simon Case – probably the worst cabinet secretary we’ve ever had – and, say, appointed him an ambassador. Most people would then have applauded if Starmer had made Gray the first female cabinet secretary in history.
Such a move would have preserved her reputation, and helped restore the reputation of the civil service. But with this development, that option has vanished.