Starmer looks to Gray for the experience needed to get ready for government

Katie Neame
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Sue Gray has been offered the position of Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, in a move that has enraged Conservative MPs. It was announced on Thursday that Gray, who led the ‘partygate’ investigation that contributed towards former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s downfall, had resigned from her role in the civil service amid reports she was set to be appointed as the Labour leader’s chief of staff. A Labour Party spokesperson has since confirmed that Gray has been offered the role. The spokesperson said: “We understand she hopes to accept the role subject to the normal procedures. Keir Starmer is delighted she is hoping to join our preparations for government and our mission to build a better Britain.” Gray’s appointment to the role will have to be assessed by the advisory committee on business appointments (ACOBA), which oversees new jobs for former ministers and senior civil servants.

Allies of Johnson have claimed that the move calls into question the findings of Gray’s investigation into partygate and undermines the impartiality of the civil service. Jacob Rees-Mogg said her report into lockdown partying in Downing Street now looks “like a left-wing stitch-up”, an accusation echoed by Nadine Dorries. Lucy Powell said this morning it was a “ludicrous claim” to suggest Gray’s appointment undermined the conclusions in the report. The Shadow Culture Secretary told Times Radio that the accusation “stands in stark contrast” to what Johnson said at the time the report was published and when the investigation was underway, “when the Prime Minister, and indeed the rest of the Conservative government, were at pains to tell the country how independent and impartial, and how formidable, Sue Gray was as a civil servant”. A reminder that the separate Metropolitan Police investigation into partygate resulted in 126 fines being issued to 83 people – including to Johnson, his wife Carrie Johnson and then Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

But the Institute for Government’s Alex Thomas has also expressed concerns about Gray’s appointment, describing it as “unusual” and “surprising” and arguing that it “raises quite tricky questions for the civil service in the long term about the trust of relationship between ministers and civil servants”. Thomas, a former civil servant, noted that civil servants have crossed over into political roles before – highlighting Tony Blair’s appointment of Jonathan Powell while Labour was in opposition in 1995 – but added: “It hasn’t happened before with a civil servant who was still serving of this seniority and with the public profile and career history in the deep centre of government that Sue Gray has.” Thomas did, however, push back on claims that the appointment undermined Gray’s report, saying he had always seen her “behave entirely impartially” with representatives of all political parties.

The move is an interesting one from Starmer. His previous chief of staff, Sam White, left the role in October as part of an accelerated restructuring of key positions in an attempt by the Labour leader to put his party on an “election footing”. Lucy Powell said this morning Starmer “has made no secret” of the fact he has been looking for someone with recent government experience that can help the Labour Party and him personally “get ready for that big transition to government”. Gray comes with a wealth of experience, having first joined the civil service in the 1970s and worked across a wide range of departments and in various senior roles, including serving as director general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018. But choosing Gray in particular was always going to cause a backlash and may not be smooth sailing for Labour, with reports that ACOBA could conclude that her appointment should be postponed for up to two years.

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