PM dodges questions over integrity of Sue Gray partygate probe amid Labour move

Rishi Sunak has declined to express confidence in Sue Gray’s partygate report, amid the former senior civil servant’s plans to join Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s office.

The Prime Minister on Tuesday dodged a question on whether her investigation into lockdown breaches in Downing Street and Whitehall retained its integrity.

He told a press conference: “As you know, the Cabinet Office is reviewing the circumstances of her departure.

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declined to express confidence in Sue Gray’s partygate report (Leon Neal/PA)

“I’m not going to pre-empt their findings so I’m not going to comment further on that situation.”

When Ms Gray published her report detailing alcohol-fuelled partying during the pandemic in No 10 in May last year, Mr Sunak said he was “grateful” to her.

The Cabinet Office is looking into the circumstances surrounding her resignation as second permanent secretary in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Labour has insisted no conversations about the chief of staff position took place with Ms Gray before she had completed her investigation.

The discussions “didn’t start until we were looking for a chief of staff, which was after Sue Gray did her report into what happened at Downing Street during the pandemic with the parties,” shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said.

Meanwhile, a former top civil servant said Ms Gray faced a cooling-off period of up to six months before she could take up her new post.

Her decision to quit to accept a job in the office of the Leader of the Opposition has sparked a political row about civil service impartiality, amid outrage among Tories in Westminster.

But former permanent secretary to the Treasury Lord Macpherson of Earl’s Court told peers there was nothing wrong with the appointment, as long as Ms Gray follows rules set by the anti-corruption watchdog, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), such as the cooling-off period.

The independent crossbench peer told the House of Lords: “I remember a number of examples of people moving from the civil service to a political position, in particular my old friend Lord Sassoon, who was a very successful director general at the Treasury, moved to be Gordon Brown’s ambassador to the City, then resigned and turned up the next day as advisor to George Osborne.

“But the issue, surely, is the Acoba rules, all too often not observed by members of the Government.

“So long as Ms Gray follows the recommendations, which I would assume would be somewhere between three and six months for an adequate cooling-off period, surely she is pursuing the right and honourable course.”

Cabinet Office minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe said: “Ms Gray does indeed need to apply to Acoba, which she has not yet done.

“And this is a very senior post of a political kind and I’m sure they will look extremely carefully at the move and lay down appropriate rules and guidance for her departure from the civil service.”

Lady Neville-Rolfe urged Sir Keir to be more “forthcoming” about the details of the discussions between his team and Ms Gray over her appointment.

Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords, Baroness Smith of Basildon, said she was “appalled that some now impugn (Ms Gray’s) integrity for the time she served successive governments”.

The Labour frontbencher then suggested that “those kicking up a fuss just fear the appointment”.