What is Labour playing at with the presumptive appointment of former senior civil servant Sue Gray as Sir Keir Starmer’s Chief of Staff?
Is Gray’s appointment, as Starmer suggests, an indication of the seriousness with which Labour intends to take propriety once in government? It’s a plausible line; after all, Gray was once responsible for propriety and ethics across Whitehall before moving to the role of Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office. Gray also took over last year’s ‘Partygate’ investigation once Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was forced into a recusal for having attended one of the parties in question.
Or is Starmer’s appointment of Gray a bit of clever political theatre, meant to whip the Tories into an intra-party frenzy over the ‘stitch-up’ of Boris Johnson on ‘Partygate’? Johnson’s supporters are certainly briefing the stitch-up line, a line being given full value on today’s front pages. That Gray’s report was more whitewash than hanging - and that the report was welcomed by Boris Johnson himself - appears to have been memory-holed by any now-livid Tories.
Which raises the question of what the Tories are playing at with news of Gray’s appointment.
Johnson’s allies are certainly clear in their game. Partygate’s wot got their man neutered and they think the party has had no balls since their boss was defenestrated. A chance to reverse that narrative is to be seized with both hands, even if it risks setting back the cause of current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, especially after Sunak looked to have put Boris back in his corner with his deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
It would all be fun and games if the stakes weren’t so serious.
The line the Tories are briefing about a ‘stitch-up’ is pernicious, a corrosive story about the ‘non-partisan’ civil service many of their supporters will easily (and willingly) believe. Feeding into the mistrust of the civil service is manifestly what this country does not need if it is to tackle the fearsome public policy challenges ahead. Gray was not the original ‘Partygate’ inquisitor and the Tories have hidden behind her eventual report with respect to Johnson for months now. To suddenly claim the opposite is rank opportunism.
Which brings us to Labour, the party that supposedly believes in the unimpeachable integrity of said public service. Just what the heck are they thinking by appointing Gray, and what the heck is Gray doing in accepting the appointment? In what universe should a super senior mandarin, one who knows most of the behind the scenes on the government’s policy and where a fair few political bodies are buried, be allowed to join the office of the Leader of the Opposition? If Labour were actively looking to sew mistrust in the civil service they could hardly have come up with a better ploy.
If this is Starmer being cheeky merely to stir up the Tories, he should withdraw the appointment, because the bantz just aren’t worth it. And if he is serious about the appointment he should accept the apparent conflict of interest is hugely damaging to the civil service he purports to respect. Moreover, there is nothing Starmer will be able to say to remove the apparent conflict of interest, especially when people are already cynical about everything to do with public life.
For that reason, Starmer should erase Gray and go back to the drawing board.