The civil service must be independent from party politics
According to a report from Sky News, Sue Gray is being considered for the role of Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. As yet, neither Gray nor the Labour Party have commented publicly on Joe Pike’s scoop, but both sides should deny it without delay — because any such appointment would be extremely unwise.
Gray is a senior civil servant — currently the Second Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office — and as such is required to be scrupulously neutral with regard to party politics. However, the role of chief of staff — whether to a leader of the Opposition or a prime minister — is a political appointment.
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Admittedly, the barrier between the civil service and politics isn’t completely impermeable. People with political backgrounds are regularly appointed to civil service positions — for instance, as special advisers, policy experts and speechwriters. I should know, because I’ve made that particular transition myself — having worked in two Whitehall departments as a speechwriter.
However, such appointments are usually temporary — and they’re bound by strict rules. As soon as you join up, you are politically neutered, forbidden from expressing contentious opinions in any public forum. It’s a painful operation, but a necessary one. The impartiality of the civil service is a cornerstone of our constitution and nothing should be allowed to compromise it.
As for travel in the other direction — from the civil service and into politics — that’s almost unheard of at a senior level. Ministers need to be able to trust the top civil servants with whom they work. This would be undermined if permanent secretaries and other key officials could soon be working for the other side.
It could be argued that there are precedents for Starmer to appoint someone like Gray. For instance, Tony Blair’s long-serving chief of staff was Jonathan Powell — previously a top diplomat. Subsequently, under Gordon Brown, two senior civil servants — Tom Scholar and Jeremy Heywood — served stints in the same role.
However, since 2010 the job has become unambiguously political. For instance, the current chief of staff in Downing Street is Liam Booth-Smith — a close ally of Rishi Sunak. Liz Truss had Mark Fullbrook, a political strategist. Boris Johnson’s last chief of staff was Steve Barclay — a serving MP. Under Theresa May there was Gavin Barwell, who’d only just stopped being an MP. Further, Barwell took over from Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill — neither of whom could be described as neutral.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with prime ministers making political appointments. It is lonely at the top and you need allies around you. But that is precisely why senior civil servants should not be considered for a job in which political reliability is at a premium.
That’s especially true in the case of Gray, who has inhabited some of the most sensitive roles in Whitehall. It is because of her experience in adjudicating matters of governmental propriety that she was appointed to lead the enquiry into Partygate — the outcome of which helped to bring down a prime minister.
Clearly, it’s time for a Government review into which roles senior civil servants should and shouldn’t be allowed to move on to. A job for Sue Gray, perhaps?