February 20, 2024 - 7:15am

Labour had to row back yesterday afternoon on its plan for citizens’ assemblies, which had been briefed by Sue Gray in an interview published at the beginning of the week. If the scheme were to still become Labour policy, it remains the sort of constitutional frippery that lingers at the bottom of a government’s to-do list, either abandoned or watered down. Perhaps more interesting, even in spite of the climbdown, is the emergence of Starmer’s Chief of Staff into the policymaking limelight, and what that means for the relationships between elected and appointed power in the next government. 

Sue Gray moved to Starmer’s staff from the Cabinet Office, where she had developed a reputation of being both inscrutable and all-powerful. One of her strengths, one would have assumed, is that her own politics had been professionally suppressed for so long. Though of course only a Labourite would take a job with Starmer, her exact policy views are hard to fathom. This can be an advantage for an appointed insider. 

In the run-up to the election and beyond, Gray’s task is making the Labour machine work. She must turn a political outfit into a governing one, equipping it with the plans and the skills to get things done. Professional ambiguity often helps with that — with enough egos already in politics, operating under the radar can make it easier to cajole shadow ministers and lean on party apparatus. 

Being a more public figure can make one a target, for both internal and external potshots. In recent years, prime ministers have suffered from their associate’s public exposure. Through Brexit, Barnard Castle and general abrasiveness, Dominic Cummings alienated large chunks of the Tory Party as Johnson’s number two. Though an odd, symbiotic, who-is-using-whom relationship existed between the PM and his Chief of Staff, it was ultimately the latter who could be sacrificed when the boss needed a popularity boost (and, if you believe the rumours, when his wife had taken against Cummings). 

Other Downing Street set-ups have been similarly unhappy in the end. Andy Coulson’s role as Cameron’s Communications Director highlighted the PM’s uneasy links to News International, especially when Coulson was convicted in relation to phone hacking. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill also became the outlet for frustrations with Theresa May’s leadership of the party, especially after the blundered 2017 general election. Through Blair’s tenure, of course, his relationship with Alastair Campbell was a frequent source of Westminster discussion. 

Each of these examples show how advisers can live off the boss’s political capital, and how misusing it can mean it’s the adviser’s time to go. Having Sue Gray publicly expound on policy is an interesting test of this — especially on a matter that could easily sit in Deputy Leader Angela Rayner’s communities brief. This follows recent Labour rows on green spending and the Rochdale by-election

For Starmer, there is a benefit. A lot of criticism of him is based on the lightness of his policy platform. Deploying Gray in public is a way to bolster this, giving him a second mouthpiece who has little interest in briefing against him. There is also a risk, however. Having an adviser out there makes them a target, and can hamper their ability to sway things behind the scenes. As we move towards the election, it will be interesting to see if these interventions remain rare, or if Gray becomes a common part of the Labour attack. 

So far, Gray has been a shrewd appointment. She knows Whitehall and will be an asset in government. Her background also makes her loyal and discreet. If, however, she comes to the fore, her position will change, perhaps making her presence more of a risk to Labour’s internal power struggles. Few advisers manage to balance an influential presence both in public and behind the scenes. Today’s small retreat suggests Gray will have a tricky time trying to navigate just such a balance.

John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.