A government probe into partygate investigator Sue Gray’s switch to a senior role at the Labour Party has been paused after she refused to co-operate.
The investigation was launched following concerns that Ms Gray, who recently left her high-ranking position at Whitehall to become Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, had engaged with the opposition while looking into allegations of lockdown parties held in Downing Street during the coronavirus pandemic. She was given the opportunity to make representations as part of the probe, but she reportedly chose not to.
In a written statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday (2 May), Deputy PM and Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden said the government will “consider next steps” after Ms Gray “chose not to” speak to the investigation.
Some Tories reacted angrily to the update, which also did not say whether Ms Gray had broken any rules - as had been suggested by several reports. Others criticised the government’s statement as a “political stunt”, while allies of Ms Gray defended her for prioritising a separate review by the anti-corruption watchdog.
The Daily Telegraph reported that as part of the probe, the Cabinet Office will suggest Ms Gray held talks with Starmer while she was advising cross-party MPs on the Privileges Committee, which investigated whether former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had lied to Parliament over Partygate. Ms Gray, despite previously producing a report on the scandal, was not on the Privileges Committee, but government sources say the inquiry was handled by those in the Cabinet Office and ethics unit, which she worked for.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told Sky News: “If that is what the report says, I do think Keir Starmer has got some serious questions to answer.”
However, the Labour Party has denied that any approach was made while Ms Gray worked in the ethics unit at the Cabinet Office - with Starmer on Tuesday (2 May) insisting he is “confident” that Ms Gray did not break any rules when she began talks with Labour.
“Firstly I had no discussions with her while she was investigating Boris Johnson whatsoever, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that’s the case,” the Holborn and St Pancras MP told BBC Breakfast. “I’m confident she hasn’t broken any of the rules. Whenever a senior civil servant leaves the Civil Service there is always a process that they have to go through, that is the process she is going through, quite rightly.”
He added: “The government is trying to resurrect a story about Sue Gray, maybe because they don’t want to talk about the cost of living crisis, which actually is the thing that most people are most concerned about.”
The next steps are for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments to consider evidence from a range of sources and make a recommendation on any appropriate restrictions that should be imposed on Ms Gray’s Labour Party appointment.
Following the advice, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will make the final ruling, though neither he nor the committee have the power to block an appointment. However, Ms Gray could be forced to wait up to two years to take up a role with Labour as Starmer’s chief of staff.
The former senior civil servant previously made headlines when she investigated and released a long-awaited report into the partygate scandal last year, which revealed details of gatherings at which officials drank so much they were sick, sang karaoke, and became involved an altercation at a time when millions of people across the country were unable to see friends and family.
Her inquiry followed the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into Covid lockdown breaches across Downing Street and Whitehall. Johnson, his wife Carrie, and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak were among the 83 people fined for attending events spanning eight separate days.
They all received one fixed penalty notice (FPN) for attending an event to celebrate the former Prime Minister’s 56th birthday in June 2020. Indoor mixing was banned at the time of the gathering. A total of 126 fines were issued by the force - with several people receiving multiple FPNs.
But who is Sue Gray, what is her background, and how did she end up in charge of the partygate inquiry? Here’s what you need to know.
Who is Sue Gray?
Once described as “deputy God”, Sue Gray is second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and was previously director-general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018.
She is widely seen as a figure who would not pull any punches in an inquiry. Ms Gray oversaw the Plebgate inquiry in 2012 after former chief whip Andrew Mitchell was accused of calling a policeman a “pleb” at the Downing Street gates.
She was once described as “deputy God” by then Labour MP Paul Flynn in a meeting of Parliament’s Public Administration Committee the same year.
Former Tory MP and Cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin is reported to have said of Ms Gray: “It took me precisely two years before I realised who it is that runs Britain. Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray, the head of ethics or something in the Cabinet Office. Unless she agrees, things just don’t happen.”
Ms Gray was once described by BBC Newsnight’s then policy editor as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of”.
Is Sue Gray taking a job with the Labour Party?
On 2 March 2023, Sue Gray resigned from the Civil Service with “immediate effect”. A No 10 spokesman said: “I can confirm Sue Gray has resigned from the post of second permanent secretary in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. This was accepted by the department’s permanent secretary and the Cabinet Secretary with immediate effect.”
The same day, a Labour Party spokesman confirmed the party had offered Ms Gray the role of chief of staff to the Leader of the Opposition. “We understand she hopes to accept the role subject to the normal procedures. Keir Starmer is delighted she is hoping to join our preparations for government and our mission to build a better Britain.”
The Cabinet Office said it would be “reviewing the circumstances” under which the senior civil servant Sue Gray quit, after hearing she intended to take up the position.
A friend of Boris Johnson hit back at the reported move, and claimed the validity of Sue Gray’s partygate investigation has been “completely destroyed” with her plans to join Sir Keir Starmer’s office, the Press Association reports.
The ally said: “Keir Starmer appointing Sue Gray as his chief of staff reveals what many have suspected all along: partygate was a deliberate and manufactured plot to oust a Brexit-backing Conservative prime minister.
“This matter is surely a serious breach of civil service impartiality and there can be no doubt the civil service code has been breached,” they said.
Who is Sue Gray married to?
Sue Gray is married to country and western singer Bill Conlon. The couple ran a pub in Northern Ireland in the 1980s as Ms Gray took a break from her civil servant role.
Mr Conlon’s music consists of traditional Irish ballads and has played European festivals with his band Emerald. The two tend to live a private life away from the glare of the public spotlight, until the Downing Street party inquiry.
What happened with Simon Case?
Simon Case, who is the Cabinet Secretary and head of the home civil service, was appointed last December by the Prime Minister to lead the partygate inquiry.
However, reports soon emerged that he had attended a ‘Christmas drinks’ event with around 15 to 20 members of staff. He resigned from the inquiry, with Ms Gray later replacing him.
After Mr Case was tasked with the investigation, the Prime Minister’s press secretary insisted that “due diligence had been followed” when asked if the Cabinet Secretary had attended the Downing Street party at the centre of the saga.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis told the Commons that Mr Case “was not at any relevant gathering”.