All in all an impressive album. In the course of her distinguished career as a civil servant, Sue Gray toppled three Conservative cabinet ministers and destroyed Boris Johnson’s premiership.
Now she’s embroiled in the most serious controversy yet: being unveiled as Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.
Allies of Boris will argue that the appointment of Gray, who once took time out from Whitehall to become a pub landlady in Northern Ireland, proves them right.
They have always maintained that Gray’s 2022 report, which claimed a “failure of leadership and judgment” in No. 10, was a sting.
After all, this was a woman who, as senior civil servant, had urged Alastair Campbell – Tony Blair’s belligerent communications chief famously involved in the Iraq war dossier row – to become a Labor MP.
It was widely reported last night in Westminster that Starmer made a serious mistake in appointing Gray as his top assistant.
Sue Gray is embroiled in the most serious controversy yet: her revelation as Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff
It was widely reported in Westminster last night that Starmer made a serious mistake in appointing Gray as his top aide
She is a senior civil servant – currently the second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office – and must therefore be absolutely neutral on partisan politics.
But the role of chief of staff to the leader of the opposition is by definition political. By taking the job, Gray risks causing catastrophic damage to the civil service’s reputation for impartiality.
She will also raise the suspicion that she was an undercover operator for the Labor Party all along.
Last night a glowing Boris ally described her to me as “an absolute serpent.” This source added, “Sue Gray was supposed to be in No. 10, all “Tweetie Pie.”
“Sue Gray was presented to the public as an impartial arbiter of norms and morality.”
A current No. 10 Insider agreed, saying, “The appointment is absolutely sickening.”
To be sure, this is far from Gray’s first connection to Labour.
In her new role at Starmer, she will be reunited with Leila McIntyre, who worked in Downing Street while Gray was preparing her Partygate report.
McIntyre later became Press Officer for the Labor Party.
She is a top civil servant – currently the second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office – and must therefore be absolutely neutral on partisan politics
In addition, Gray’s son Liam Conlon, the chairman of the Labor Party Irish Society, has spent the past two weeks campaigning in Uxbridge, which happens to be Boris’ constituency – by a relatively narrow margin of some 7,200 votes. It is widely expected that Conlon will be parachuted into a safe Labor seat at the next general election.
And Gray, to be clear, has never shied away from berating Tories whenever the opportunity arose – even when it was arguably her job to do so.
While leading the Cabinet Office’s “decency and ethics team” between 2012 and 2018, she claimed the scalps of no fewer than three senior Conservatives. In 2017, Damian Green, who was de facto deputy prime minister under Theresa May, resigned after lying about pornography on his Commons computer. Gray’s report on his behavior sealed his fate.
In 2012, there was the ‘Plebgate’ affair in which former Tory chief Andrew Mitchell allegedly insulted police officers at the Downing Street gates. Gray again led the investigation with the privately educated Mitchell resigning.
A few months earlier, Liam Fox had resigned as Secretary of Defense over claims he had broken the ministerial code. It followed weeks of press about his working relationship with Adam Werritty, a friend and alleged adviser. Again, Gray’s report was crucial to Fox’s defenestration.
The daughter of Irish immigrants, Gray, 65, joined the government straight from her North London Roman Catholic school. In the 1980s, she took time off to run a pub – her mother, Anastasia, had been a barmaid.
Gray and her country-and-western singing Northern Irish husband, Bill Conlon, took on the Cove Bar in the border town of Newry, Northern Ireland. It was at the height of the Troubles in ‘Bandit Country’ in a 200 square mile militarized zone filled with roadblocks and watchtowers.
Sue Gray toppled three Conservative cabinet ministers and destroyed Boris Johnson’s premiership
Conlon and his band, Emerald, performed in the bar.
In 2017, a client remembered her as ‘a good landlady’, adding that ‘she had known she wouldn’t speak up’ about her work for the UK government.
She returned to the civil service and worked in the departments of transport, health and work and pensions, joining the cabinet in the late 1990s. Over the years, she has witnessed many ministerial reshuffles.
A former minister said: ‘She was like a rat in a drainpipe as soon as a new government was formed. She was your new best friend, told you how great your date was, she’d hug you if she knew you, then told you what the rules are.”
The first public clue to her true political affiliation came in 2009 when Campbell wrote in his diaries that Gray revealed to him her strong views on Gordon Brown’s government.
He revealed that she had urged Campbell to stand as an MP, writing: “She felt that Labor desperately needed guidance and that none of the people at the top could provide it.”
Last night a pastor said to me, “I laughed out loud when I heard she got the job. We always suspected she was a closet left-hander.
‘Now we know. Starmer made a terrible mistake. The entire Partygate report now looks like a complete sham as less than a year later she is the leader of the Labor Party’s most trusted official.
“I think we need to know how long they’ve been talking and if they’ve been in contact during her Partygate investigation.”