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Row over Partygate civil servant Sue Gray becoming Keir Starmer’s chief of staff


Sue Gray is a veteran civil servant and former pub landlady known as a tough enforcer.

Her Partygate report last year catapulted her into the public eye when she was seen to control the fate of Boris Johnson and ministers.

In her former job as Director General of Decency and Ethics at the Cabinet Office, she had enormous power and long experience in Westminster scandals, developing a fearsome reputation among ministers and civil servants.

Whitehall heavy hitter Sue Gray is investigating three alleged meetings at No10 and the Department for Education in November and December last year when indoor mixing was banned.

It saw her described as the most powerful official you’ve never heard of.

Swear words applied to the 64-year-old include “almighty,” “formidable,” and “enforcer.”

Former cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin once playfully stated: ‘Our great United Kingdom is actually run entirely by a lady called Sue Gray. Nothing moves in Whitehall unless Sue says so.’

Her 2012 investigation into the so-called Plebgate affair led to the resignation of Minister Andrew Mitchell over verbal abuse against Downing Street police on duty.

And her investigation into Damian Green found that he had made misleading comments about pornography found on an office computer, which led to his firing in 2017.

But her life hasn’t been quite standard mandarin. In the 1980s she was a pub landlady and ran the Cove Bar near Newry in Northern Ireland with her husband Bill Conlan, a joiner and country and western singer from Portaferry in County Down.

The couple married in March 1985 at the Newtownard Registry Office near Belfast, while Sue took a career break.

At the time, Newry was a major battleground between the British Army and the IRA. A month before their wedding, nine policemen were killed and 40 injured in an IRA mortar attack on the RUC base in the town.

In 2021 she told the BBC: ‘I loved it, loved it at the time, I would never do it again.’

Her parents were poor but hard-working Irish immigrants to Britain – her father, Leo, a furniture salesman, and her mother, Anastasia, a long-serving barmaid – who settled in Tottenham, north London, in the early 1950s. Sue was born in 1957, followed by her brother Kevin three years later, and attended a Catholic school in North London.

In 1987, the couple returned to London, where their two sons, Liam and Ciaran, were born.

Sue resumed her civil service career, working throughout Whitehall in transport, health and employment and pensions, before joining the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s.

In January last year, she was called up by the Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities after Cabinet Secretary Simon Case stepped down from his role as head of the inquiry.

He was forced to resign after it emerged that a quiz was held in his own department in December 2020 that he was aware of and spoke to.

From 2018 to 2021, she served as Permanent Secretary to the Department of Finance in the Northern Ireland Executive.

She will return to London in 2021 to lead work at the Union. But she admitted she wouldn’t have come back to London had she won the highest civil service in Northern Ireland.

She applied to lead the service following the retirement of previous boss David Sterling, but the power-sharing executive overlooked her and two other candidates, leaving the position unfilled.

She told the BBC at the time: ‘Why didn’t I get the job? I’m not sure I’ll ever fully know, but I guess, you know, I guess people thought maybe I was too much of a challenger, or a disruptor.

‘I am both. Maybe I’d… change too much.’

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