Ministers question if Sue Gray followed rules - as messages reveal Tory divides on Labour appointment
Tory MPs are fighting between themselves over Sue Gray's decision to leave the civil service to work for Labour, leaked WhatsApp messages reveal - as questions continue to swirl over the controversial job move.
In a series of exchanges seen by Sky's deputy political editor Sam Coates, allies of Boris Johnson clashed with their colleagues who warned against criticising the decision by Sir Keir Starmer to hire the author of the partygate report.
Sky News revealed on Friday that the Labour leader appointed the top official as his chief of staff after she left the civil service.
Politics live: Tory MPs row over WhatsApp about how to respond to Sue Gray taking job with Starmer
The news has prompted outrage from some Tory MPs, especially those loyal to Mr Johnson, who said the findings of her investigation into lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street are now invalid and it was a "Labour stitch-up".
However, the messages leaked to Sky News show not all Conservatives are happy with this attack line, with former minister Jackie Doyle-Price warning it is "ill judged" and "burning our constitution".
Ms Doyle-Price said in a group chat on Monday morning: "A reminder folks - Boris Johnson appointed Sue Gray to investigate partygate. No one else. So much for a stitch up . He wasn't brought down by partygate. Or by Whitehall.
"He lost the confidence of the Parliamentary party over the appointment of the previous deputy chief whip (Chris Pincher)."
The former minister warned "this anti-Whitehall pile on is simply burning our constitution".
"Starmer has shown poor judgment here but a lot of what is being said by Colleagues is also I'll [sic] judged," she said.
However, the Conservative MP for Workington, Mark Jenkinson, disagreed, saying the former senior civil servant was making "a mockery of the system she purported to be protecting".
Tim Loughton, the backbench MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, came partially to Ms Doyle-Price's defence, arguing that criticism should be focused on Sir Keir rather than Sue Gray to avoid "refocussing public attention on partygate".
But it was former culture secretary Nadine Dorries who most aggressively rejected the appeal to step back from attacks, starting her message: "Are you serious, Jackie?".
Tory MPs row over Sue Gray: Read the full exchange
The messages lay bare the scale of the rancour and emotion over Mr Johnson's departure and Ms Gray's perceived role in it, after her partygate report found there was a "failure of leadership and judgment" in Number 10 during his premiership.
Mr Johnson, who ordered the civil servant's investigation, went on to receive one of the 126 fines issued by the Metropolitan Police during its own probe.
The former prime minister narrowly survived a no-confidence vote over the scandal, but was forced to resign a month later after support in his cabinet collapsed over his handling of the Chris Pincher affair.
He remains under investigation by the cross-party Privileges Committee over whether he lied to parliament with his denials of lockdown-flouting parties.
Sue Gray 'may have breached rules'
The leaked messages emerged amid a heated debate on Ms Gray's hiring in the Commons - with Labour dismissing the furore as a "conspiracy theory" spread by Mr Johnson and his allies.
Several Conservative MPs raised concerns about her planned move to the Opposition and pressed it to release the full details of their exchanges with the former civil servant.
Jeremy Quinn, a government minister, cast doubt on whether the partygate investigator followed the proper process of notifying officials about her planned job move - and suggested her new appointment could be blocked.
The paymaster general said there are four rules or guidance for civil servants that are "pertinent", including informing the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) of new roles they wish to take up.
"The rules state that approval must be obtained prior to a job offer being announced. The Cabinet Office has not as yet been informed that the relevant notification to ACOBA has been made," he said.
Mr Quinn said ACOBA could recommend that the appointment would not be appropriate and confirmed there's a standard three month waiting period for its decision - but said it could take as long as two years.
Sue Gray: 'No reason to believe' partygate investigator not impartial, minister says
He confirmed the Cabinet Office is "looking into the circumstances leading up to Gray's resignation" and urged Labour to publish its communications with Ms Gray ahead of her appointment.
'Conspiracy theory from sleaze-obsessed Tories'
Speaking in the Commons, deputy leader Angela Rayner accused the "sleaze-addicted" Tories of being "so self-obsessed that they are using parliamentary time to indulge in the conspiracy theories of the former prime minister and his gang".
"What will they ask for next, a Westminster hall debate on the moon landings, the bill of dredging the Loch Ness, or a public inquiry into whether the earth is flat?" she asked.
"This debate says more about the delusions of the modern Conservative Party than it does anything else."
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Earlier, Sir Keir declined to say when he first contacted her about joining his team when pressed repeatedly, saying only that "it was recent" and after his former chief of staff left in October last year.
But he insisted he had "absolutely no contact" with Ms Gray while she was investigating rule breaches across Downing Street and Whitehall.