Tory anger as head of ‘partygate’ probe quits to become Labour chief of staff
Sue Gray, the senior civil servant who led the inquiry into the “partygate” affair that consumed Boris Johnson’s government, has caused Tory outrage by quitting to become chief of staff to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
Rishi Sunak, prime minister, may intervene to block Gray from taking up her key role in Starmer’s office for months, reflecting fury in Conservative party circles. “People are disgusted,” said one senior party official.
Gray’s departure has been seized on by some allies of Johnson to suggest the former prime minister was the victim of an establishment “stitch-up” over partygate, the scandal of Covid-19 lockdown parties in Downing Street.
But her move has also alarmed senior civil servants, who fear they will now be accused again of being institutionally biased against the Conservatives.
Simon Case, cabinet secretary, only found out about the proposed move when news leaked on Wednesday night, raising concerns that Gray had been speaking to Starmer without informing her boss.
“People are shocked,” said one Whitehall official. Another said: “Even sane people will now be questioning our impartiality. The mud-slinging against the civil service is going to get quite nasty.”
The Cabinet Office confirmed Gray had quit her post as second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and added: “We are reviewing the circumstances under which she resigned.”
Labour confirmed Gray had been offered the job and accepted that Sunak could use his authority to delay the civil servant’s move into Starmer’s office for months.
“We had always factored in a period of gardening leave but we think it’s worth it to get such a senior authority on how the machinery of government works,” one Starmer ally said.
Gray, who ran Whitehall’s propriety and ethics team from 2012 until 2018, became a household name when she was asked to lead the partygate inquiry.
Her initial findings were published in January 2022 with her final report published last May, just days after the Metropolitan police issued 126 fixed penalty notices to 83 people who attended illegal lockdown parties in Whitehall — including Johnson and his then chancellor Sunak.
She will now go through the Whitehall screening process — carried out by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments — to which all senior mandarins must submit before taking a job outside Whitehall.
Sunak will make the final decision on how long Gray should wait before making her switch, but Tory officials said that precedent suggested her gardening leave could extend to a year.
“Sue Gray move to Starmer’s office not surprising,” Nadine Dorries, former culture secretary under Johnson, wrote on Twitter. “The Gray report was a stitch-up of [Johnson].”
Gray’s new role will involve readying Labour for government should it win the next general election, which is due to be held by January 2025 at the latest.
The move by Starmer to appoint an experienced Whitehall figure to the key role mirrors Sir Tony Blair’s decision to bring in Jonathan Powell, a diplomat, as his chief of staff before the then party leader led Labour to a landslide general election victory in 1997.
After 13 years in opposition, most former ministers and advisers in the last Labour government are no longer on the front line of politics. “She’s great. She’d be magnificent in the role,” said one veteran Labour MP.
One Tory MP, also a longtime ally of Johnson, rejected the idea of any bias in the partygate report and said Gray had been “utterly professional” as a civil servant. “I think if people read her report properly they will see she was saying that Boris was let down badly [by civil servants],” he said.
Figures released on Thursday from the Electoral Commission showed Labour received £6mn from private donors in 2022, the highest figure outside a general election year since 2008. In the final quarter, the party raised £7.2mn in total, while the ruling Conservatives received £4.7mn over the same period.
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