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  1. The Staggers
3 March 2023

What the Tories forget about Sue Gray

No-one forced No 10 to party during Covid, nor to appoint her to investigate said parties.

By James Ball

When Westminster – and online – discourse gets sufficiently detached from reality, all that is left to do is to repeat things that are true, almost like a mantra. The fallout from the appointment of the civil servant Sue Gray, most recently second permanent secretary in the Department for Levelling Up, as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff is very much one of those moments.

Gray is perhaps most famous for leading the internal inquiry into partygate, and for this reason Boris Johnson and the most deranged of his supporters are crying blue murder – her inquiry, they argue, cannot have been impartial. They were stitched up.

Let us begin our mantra here, then.

Boris Johnson did not want to authorise an actual independent inquiry into parties at No 10 during lockdown under his premiership. Forced to concede something, Johnson announced an internal inquiry to be led by the cabinet secretary, Simon Case. Within days, it emerged that Case himself – who had accepted the role leading the inquiry – had attended at least one of the partygate events. Case remained cabinet secretary, the most senior role in the civil service, but stepped aside from running the internal inquiry that Johnson had ordered.

[See also: Weaponising Sue Gray’s Labour affiliation will not end well for the Tories]

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Johnson could have announced an independent inquiry at this stage, but once again decided not to do so. Instead he appointed Gray, because she had a reputation for fairness and impartiality built over a decades-long career. She was also seen as a figure firmly of the establishment, overseeing the Cabinet Office’s “clearing house” which handled (ie blocked) sensitive freedom of information requests. Gray was no journalist’s idea of a good source.

The mantra can roll on: the Metropolitan Police issued a number of fixed penalty notices over the parties, including to Johnson and Rishi Sunak, then the chancellor. This evidence of law-breaking did not come from Sue Gray’s report but from the police.

Gray’s report was, at the time, regarded as something of a whitewash. She took the view that her remit was to look at systems and processes, rather than to criticise politicians. As a result, she was heavily critical of the management of No 10 and the Cabinet Office that had allowed the culture of partying during lockdown to take place. All of this was, of course, overseen by Case – who escaped a fine himself, despite having told friends he expected to receive one.

Mantra over, for now. Having reminded ourselves of reality, we can see what a distorted world Johnson and his backers now live in. No-one except Johnson thinks he was ill-treated over partygate, which wasn’t even the scandal that cost him his premiership. Sue Gray neither forced the prime minister’s staff to party on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, nor to appoint her to investigate that.

Similarly, the clutching of pearls over the integrity of the civil service is laughable for so long as Case is in post. His willingness to investigate parties he attended should have ended his career. His serial failures since then have included helping Johnson arrange an £800,000 loan while he was prime minister and noticing no ethical issues with that, and allowing Nadhim Zahawi to become chancellor while under investigation by HMRC. Case is less a credible head of the civil service than a sock puppet, and he is regarded as such by many of his peers.

Starmer’s decision to hire Gray will raise many eyebrows – she is an arch-establishment figure joining an opposition that people want to bring about real change. But to pretend that she is some fifth column Labour agent is an idiotic charge, that will only blow up in the face of the Conservative Party. Which is exactly what they deserve.

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

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