Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
A senior civil servant and Whitehall heavy hitter has been handed the challenge of investigating the “endemic” parties across Whitehall during coronavirus restrictions - after her predecessor was caught up in the scandal himself.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was forced to quit his role leading the inquiry into a number of alleged gatherings on Friday (17 December), after it emerged a quiz was held in his own department that he was aware of and spoke at.
Sue Gray will carry out inquiries into alleged gatherings at Downing Street and the Department for Education in November and December last year, when indoor mixing was banned. It has also emerged that a garden party at No.10 took place on 20 May 2020 at the height of lockdown restrictions.
Boris Johnson is set to address Parliament today (31 January 2022) in the wake of Sue Gray’s findings being published to the public.
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.
She 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, and 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.”
She is also part of the panel deciding on who will be next chair of the media regulator Ofcom.
Ms Gray was once described by BBC Newsnight’s then policy editor as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of”.
However, the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, said “having somebody else from the Civil Service marking their own isn’t good enough”.
Mr Blackford told the BBC’s Newsnight programme that “it needs to be someone from authority from outwith Government, from outwith the Civil Service. I would suggest that the best way to do that would be by having a judge-led inquiry”.
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?
Ms Gray was brought in after allegations emerged yesterday that Mr Case had attended a ‘Christmas drinks’ event with around 15 to 20 members of staff, according to two Whitehall officials who were in attendance.
The Times reported that one of the parties was held on December 17, the day before the alleged Christmas party at Downing Street at the centre of the saga.
The newspaper reported that the event was listed in digital calendars as “Christmas party!” and was organised by a private secretary in Mr Case’s team.
On Friday evening, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Staff in the Cabinet Secretary’s private office took part in a virtual quiz on December 17 2020.
“A small number of them, who had been working in the office throughout the pandemic and on duty that day, took part from their desks, while the rest of the team were virtual.
“The Cabinet Secretary played no part in the event, but walked through the team’s office on the way to his own office.
“No outside guests or other staff were invited or present.
“This lasted for an hour and drinks and snacks were bought by those attending.
“He also spoke briefly to staff in the office before leaving.”
After Mr Case was tasked with the investigation earlier this month, the Prime Minister’s press secretary insisted that “due diligence has 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”.
It comes after a string of claims about parties and gatherings held across Whitehall while London was under restrictions limiting people from meeting indoors, which Ms Rayner dubbed “endemic”.
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