Who is Sue Gray? The ex-partygate investigator and senior civil servant picked as Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff | Political News

At one point, Sue Gray was one of the most talked about people in the country.

Her report investigating ‘partygate’ – lockdown-breaking gatherings in Downing Street during Boris Johnson’s leadership – was one of the most consequential events of 2022, and a key marker in his downfall.

But now the civil service lifer looks to be taking a step into the political ring, having resigned as second permanent secretary in the Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities and been picked by Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer as his chief of staff.

Her appointment, however, still needs to be approved by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments [ACOBA] watchdog.

So from running a pub in Northern Ireland in the middle of The Troubles, to investigating potential law-breaking in Downing Street, who is Sue Gray?

A life in the civil service

Ms Gray’s tenure in the service started straight from school, according to reports in The Times and the BBC.

After a sabbatical to run a pub in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, Ms Gray returned to Whitehall.

She spent six years as general director of property and ethics in the Cabinet Office, beginning in 2012.

Former prime minister Theresa May asked her to investigate Conservative MP Damian Green over allegations he had lied about the presence of pornographic images on his Commons computer.

Ms Gray also led the so-called “Plebgate” inquiry into claims that then-chief whip Andrew Mitchell had insulted police officers in Downing Street.

She was permanent secretary of the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland from 2018 to 2021, before returning to the Cabinet Office as second permanent secretary – one of the most powerful roles in Whitehall.

It was here that she was appointed to lead the partygate inquiry, after Cabinet Secretary Simon Case recused himself from the probe.

This found “failures of leadership and judgement” across both Number 10 and Cabinet Office.

Mr Johnson and the then chancellor Rishi Sunak were both later fined by police over lockdown-breaking parties.

Why are the politicians angry?

Conservative MPs have been quick to criticize Ms Gray’s new job offer.

They are using it to call into question the partygate inquiry, and whether it was a partisan attack on Mr Johnson.

Former leveling up secretary Simon Clarke, for example, said it raises a “whole host of questions” about Ms Gray’s “pivotal role” in recent events.

Samuel Coates, a former adviser to Conservative government ministers, said Ms Gray’s role means she was “the trusted gatekeeper of [Tory] ministerial secrets” – which is the “most politically sensitive official role”.

And an unnamed friend of Mr Johnson said the Labor appointment has “completely destroyed” the validity of the partygate report.

But Ben Bradshaw, a former Labor minister, said that Ms Gray was “just as strict” with his party when they were in power.

Ben Bradshaw says Ms Gray was tough with Labor

Could the appointment be blocked?

The appointment by Labor will need to go through the scrutiny of ACOBA.

The watchdog vets new jobs for former ministers, senior civil servants and other crown servants.

Ultimately, any recommendations made by ACOBA would be passed to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who has the final vote on whether Ms Gray can take up the new role.

It could be that Ms Gray might be required to take a three-month break before taking the role.

Ms Gray was one of the most powerful people in Whitehall
Ms Gray was one of the most powerful people in Whitehall

This is not the first time a senior figure from the civil service has been asked to work for the opposition.

Jonathan Powell had spent more than a decade working in the Foreign Office as a civil servant.

But in 1995, he went to work for Tony Blair – then leader of the opposition – as chief of staff.

After entering government, he was one of the most powerful figures in Downing Street, and also worked on peace talks in Northern Ireland.

However, hiring a civilian servant does not necessarily lead to electoral success.

Bob Kerslake was head of the service until September 2014.

A year later he was asked by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party to carry out a review of the Treasury.

The time gap before taking on the role is a contrast to the situation with Ms Gray.

In the 2019 general election, Mr Corbyn lost to Boris Johnson who won with an 80-seat majority.


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