Voices: Why shouldn’t Sue Gray go and work for the Labour Party?

Voices: Why shouldn’t Sue Gray go and work for the Labour Party?

The Tories are gnashing with rage, but I can’t honestly see why Sue Gray, eminent civil servant and investigator of Partygate, shouldn’t go and work for the Labour Party.

For a start, it’s plainly in the national interest for Keir Starmer to able to draw upon the best talent, both as leader of the opposition and, a fortiori, as prime minister, should he ever make it to No 10.

Had Gray remained in the top ranks of the civil service, then she’d be serving the next Labour government – assuming they win the next general election – come what may. She’d be the same human being, but in a role that might not be best suited to her, to Starmer, or, most important, making the best use of her formidable talents in the correct post.

A spell outside government will permit her to undertake the more party political and wider-ranging side of preparing for government. She can’t possibly do that while she’s still working for Michael Gove in his dismal, hollowed-out Department for Levelling Up.

As Starmer’s chief of staff, Gray is clearly going to have a more political role, and probably with the status of a special adviser – with added special powers to direct the civil service. The rest of the civil service apparatus, including the cabinet secretary Simon Case, a man hand-picked by Boris Johnson after he sacked Mark Sedwill, will no doubt continue in post under the usual rules.

One thing we do know about Gray, by the way, is that she’s not a major Labour Party donor. If she wants to help Labour in power, as opposed to “the government of the day”, then it’s surely better that her partisanship is acknowledged and accommodated appropriately. We’re all in favour of transparency, right?

Second, there are precedents for an outsider, an external appointee, to be given the role. Indeed, that is normal practice and it is therefore much better – if Gray and Starmer have “clicked” professionally – for Gray to be transformed into an external appointment for the sake of clarity, and for her to do so now.

Otherwise, such an appointment – if it were made when Starmer took office – would upset the usual dividing line between the career civil service and the other breed of more political appointee.

Thus, the very first prime ministerial chief of staff, the businessman and Tory David Wolfson, was appointed in 1985 from outside the civil service.

In 1997, Tony Blair’s choice for an augmented chief of staff with more power was the cerebral Jonathan Powell. Like Gray, Powell had been a public servant, albeit a diplomat, before he was poached by Blair to join him in opposition, with a view to running this part of the Downing Street machine when New Labour came to power.

It was an extremely effective partnership, not least in driving the Good Friday Agreement to ultimate success in 1998. Like Gray, Blair “poached” Powell, in 1995, to work for him in opposition, and to prepare Blair and his team for power. After 18 years of Tory rule, few of Blair’s team had ever served in government, let alone the cabinet, as they needed some back-up from one of the ablest civil servants at the time.

The analogy with Starmer and Gray is clear, and is no doubt meant to be: in stark contrast to the courtly, Byzantine plotting and chaos of the Johnson and Truss years, Powell was the very model of efficient administration. Gray is a symbol and instrument of a return to the honest governance of Britain.

We should also reflect on what happens when a career civil servant, nominally apolitical, works so closely with a powerful prime minister that they become politicised. Such was the fate of Sir Bernard Ingham, who died recently.

Before Margaret Thatcher took him on as her press secretary in 1979, he’d done the same job for Tony Benn of all people; but that is the nature of an independent civil service. However, as time went on, and despite Ingram’s efforts to hold the line (for example, by not attending party conference), by the end of Thatcher’s long reign in 1990 the pair were virtually one human political entity – and he was one of her most faithful servants.

He was caught briefing against at least two of her cabinet ministers, and he behaved more like a Rottweiler guarding her than protecting constitutional propriety. Yet he was still, technically, an independent civil servant, ready and waiting to serve Neil Kinnock if circumstances changed. Gray clearly prefers the Powell to the Ingham route, and rightly so: it should be a binary choice. People need to know where they stand.

Did Gray’s possible future ambitions affect the way she conducted the Partygate investigation and subsequent report, as is alleged? I’d say not. If anything, her investigation was rather too soft on Johnson, not least because she chose not to pursue the infamous “Abba party”, a supposedly Bacchanalian celebration of the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street that bent the rules even further than the cases she carefully documented.

Unwisely, Gray also agreed to a pre-publication meeting with Johnson, the results of which are not in the public domain. Her actual report was also overly circumspect, cautious and measured in apportioning “guilt”, naturally written in fluent civil service-ese.

Intentionally or not, she allowed that greased piglet Johnson to slip away. The Gray report did not finish Johnson off; if she’d been a Labour stooge she could easily have done so. If you were of a conspiratorial frame of mind, you might even suppose that she actually went easy on Johnson to keep this clownish electoral liability in place, all the better to assist Labour – but even Sue Gray isn’t that smart and manipulative.

So, she’ll be fine and – having avoided giving virtually any interviews or revealing much about herself for some decades – she’s unlikely to “become the story” in the way the likes of Alastair Campbell and Cummings did.

If Starmer does become prime minister, next year, he should have the best people in the right roles available to him. Gray’s prospective appointment marks an excellent start. It’s meant to signal Labour is serious about power, and so it does.