Sir Keir Starmer sidesteps questions over probe into Labour’s hiring of Sue Gray

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has refused to be drawn on questions about Sue Gray following speculation the party could have to wait a year for the former senior civil servant to start as his chief of staff.

Sir Keir said there is a “process in place” when asked about reports that it could be recommended that there be a 12-month gap between Ms Gray’s resignation from the Cabinet Office and starting her employment with the Labour Party.

He was also asked about suggestions that Ms Gray, who led a Government investigation into allegations of parties being held in Downing Street during the coronavirus lockdown, could be found to have breached the Civil Service Code with her switch.

Sir Keir, asked about the Sunday newspaper report by broadcasters during a local election campaign visit to Blackpool, said: “Sue Gray has a formidable reputation and there is obviously a process that is being gone through.”

Local elections 2023
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer sidestepped questions about Sue Gray while on the local election campaign trail (Peter Byrne/PA)

However, he switched the conversation on to the cost-of-living crisis, which he said was the main topic on voters’ minds ahead of Thursday’s council elections in England.

The Commons order paper indicates that on Tuesday a written statement will be made offering an “update into the circumstances leading to the resignation of a senior civil servant”.

It follows a report in the Mail On Sunday that a Cabinet Office investigation into Ms Gray’s departure from her position as second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office could conclude that the former pub landlady’s talks with Labour breached the Civil Service Code.

Separately, The Times reported that it had been told by Whitehall sources that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had been “instrumental” in recommending that Ms Gray should be barred from taking the senior Labour role until March.

The anti-corruption watchdog, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), is currently reviewing the terms of Ms Gray’s departure and new job offer.

It can set recommendations for when senior people leave government, including calling for a cooling-off period to avoid any conflict of interest.

The Civil Service Code stipulates that officials of Ms Gray’s seniority must wait a minimum of three months before taking up outside employment but Acoba could recommend that it is a longer wait.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer announced in March that Sue Gray had accepted the role as his chief of staff (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Acoba does not have the power to block an appointment, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to make the final decision over the rules.

Labour has pledged to abide by any Acoba recommendation in relation to the hiring of Ms Gray.

Senior party figures have regularly looked to sidestep the question of when conversations with Ms Gray and Sir Keir started about the possibility of her taking a top job in the Opposition leader’s office.

Sir Keir announced in March that Ms Gray had accepted the role as his chief of staff in a move which is said to be focused on planning for Labour’s transition into power if the party wins the next general election.

The party is currently riding high in the opinion polls against Mr Sunak’s Conservative Party, with recent surveys putting Sir Keir’s outfit almost 20 points in front.

Ms Gray’s decision to take the Labour job angered Boris Johnson and his Tory allies following her investigation into partygate, with claims being made that her jump called into question the neutrality of the Civil Service.

Speaking at the time that her exit from government was confirmed, former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was “hard not to feel that she has been rewarded and offered a plum job for effectively destroying a prime minister and creating a coup”.

Peter Riddell, a former commissioner for public appointments, said a cooling-off period until at least the new year could help satisfy ministerial concerns about officials being poached by those outside government.

The former journalist told Times Radio: “I think a substantial period is reasonable, mainly as an act of reassurance… to reassure current ministers that their senior civil servants aren’t going to just be here today, gone tomorrow.

“I think a period possibly lasting to the end of the year would be reasonable in that stage. It may well be longer than that, because there is a lot of strong feeling, not least among civil servants and ministers.”

The Cabinet Office, asked whether the departmental review into Ms Gray’s departure had concluded, said it did not comment on private individuals.