When a government announcement as eagerly trailed as the Cabinet Office’s Sue Gray update arrives late, it does more than frustrate those hacks who have spent the afternoon refreshing Parliament’s webpage. It suggests the person making it does not know what to do – especially when the eventual missive is as terse as that eventually delivered by our new Deputy Prime Minister.
We had been told to expect the report would be “explosive”. After all, this is an inquiry into the decision by Britain’s most famous civil servant – the former “most powerful woman in Britain”, semi-permanent secretary for ministerial morality, and spectre at Boris Johnson’s feast – to quit the Civil Service to be Keir Starmer’s Chief of Staff. Constitutional implications (and gossipy briefings) abound.
And yet Oliver Dowden informs us that “Ms Gray was given the opportunity to make representations as part of this process but chose not to do so”. The Cabinet Office was unable to criticise Gray for playing footsie with Labour for the simple reason that she refused to co-operate with their investigation. The former inquisitor has no interest in being inquired into.
Thus the facts around when Labour first approached her, what was discussed, and what the Government is likely to ask ACOBA – the body which will recommend how long Gray must wait until taking up the role – remain unclear. Nonetheless what might be most curious about the incident of Gray and the inquiry may be her doing nothing.
Labour say she is right not to do so, since the Cabinet Office’s investigation is a “political gimmick and we should wait for ACOBA (which is, nominally, an independent body). It has been reported that Gray has handed over all the information about when she spoke to Labour and about what to them. It’s almost like a leading lawyer has advised her not to cooperate.
The suggestion is also that the Government lost its nerve – or, more specifically, that Simon Case bottled it. With the Government’s report suggesting that Sue Gray had broken the rules, Case was reportedly concerned about setting a precedent about senior officials facing an investigation once they had left the Civil Service. Is this tittle-tattle at his expense?
Leaving that aside, it appears that lawyers have become involved. Hence the frequent references to the Government’s “duty of care” and “duty of confidentiality” in many of today’s write-ups. Gray has reportedly resigned from the Civil Service. Whether her “gardening leave” is up or not remains unclear. So is the question of whether she will need to find some bar-tending work before joining Labour.
The implication of what has appeared in the papers and the tone of Dowden’s statement is that ministers do believe Gray broke the Civil Service code in speaking to Labour, and that they will suggest to ACOBA that their findings suggest she deserves as long a cooling off period they as they can recommend. The lengthiest suspension possible is two years.
With a general election due any time before January 2025, that suggests the possibility of Gray being unable to work with Labour in the run up to, or even after, their transition to government. That raises obvious questions about Starmer’s judgement. Hiring Gray might be a lark. But why make all this fuss for the Queen of the Blob if she can’t actually work for you when you need her?
I don’t imagine swing voters Stockton or Peterborough will make their decisions based on Starmer poaching the Second Permanent Secretary of the Department of Levelling-Up to be his Chief of Staff. But it does highlight a basic truth about Starmer. Behind the flip-flops, u-turns, and scepticism about biology lies a quite boring middle-aged man who just isn’t very good at politics.
The appointment also raises doubts about the civil service and its impartiality. In her previous role, Gray would naturally have been suspicious of the motives of someone who did not co-operate with an inquiry. Her lack of honesty to the Cabinet Office – even if well within her rights – will only fuel the idea that she had something to hide.
If she did breach the civil service code by speaking to the Opposition without ministerial authorization, it will do further damage to the relationship between the Conservative Party and a civil service that many believe is, consciously or not, hostile to the Government’s agenda. Not to say she conspired against Johnson: don’t forget, her Partygate report swerved the most suspicious-sounding gatherings.
Whether that works in Labour’s favour won’t become clear until Gray actually starts working for them – whenever ACOBA eventually recommends that should be.