The danger in Keir Starmer appointing Sue Gray
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?
she was appointed to lead the enquiry into Partygate — the outcome of which helped to bring down a prime minister.
So the woman who brought down the PM is a devoted Labour activist. This is banana republic stuff!
Yes, eyebrows through the roof at that little revelation.
Did she also lead the inquiry into Starmer’s curry night?
No she didn’t, that was a (rather opaque) decision by the Durham Plod.
Rumour has it that they had issued a fixed penalty notice to Starmer and then the Police and Crime Commissioner (Labour, natch) quashed it.
I will never understand how a birthday cake presentation for 3/4 hour at lunchtime is a worse infringement than a beer and curry event that went on late into the night. Either both warrant fines or neither do.
Not forgetting everybody at the Beer & Curry received legal representation in their dealings with the police!
So sayeth to his ex Petronella Wyatt he absolutely hated Parties. According to her he would always arrive late and leave early.
We can be absolutely certain if a Lab Police commissioner had quashed it that would have leaked immediately. Plenty of Tory supporters in the Police force. So stretching it there MM and it’s not really a credible scenario.
That said the reasons for one Force fining and another not isn’t entirely clear. But one thing seems clear – No.10 had multiple parties and one wonders if that swayed the Police decisions?
Her son Liam Conlon is the Chair of the Labour Party Irish Society. She ran a bar in Newry in the 1980s, which people didn’t get to do unless they were onside with the IRA.
I think there is a suggestion she may have been working for Govt undercover when in NI and the pub thing part of that. Govt maintained secret contacts for decades and placed its operators. If so she can never talk about it of course, but if true suggestive we should be careful of such slurs.
ANd, noticeably, did not find anything wrong in Starmer attending a curry party with people from his party even though he had done far more than enter a room in his own house! Think about that! All Boris did was go into a room in his then home & mix with people employed there who had also been working there each day with him!
It stinks to high heaven!
126 Police fines incl the PM. Not a decision down to Gray and suggests pretty clear cut.
Police didn’t fine Starmer.
Painful I know.
Can we bring boris back yet then? I feel like we elected him, we should be the ones to get rid of him. This whole thing stinks.
We didn’t elect him. We all partook in the election of our local MP, and then they decide who leads them along with Party members (or not). It’s how it works and always has
Seems at best poor strategic timing by Starmer doesn’t it. Suspect he didn’t know the report was about to be published.
But before we use the Gray angle too much remember the Parliamentary Cmttee that published yesterday was chaired by a Tory with a Tory majority of members. It used photos and texts which, unless one believes Gray some wizzo at photoshop and IT manipulation, are pretty damning. She in fact never published these.
Painful I know, but if one supports someone with a track record in lying eventually the contortions one has to pull to defend them become more comical than serious.
Unbelievable, Starmer not even in No10 and he believes he’s beyond reproach already.
I have a feeling he will never get to No 10.
I hope so. He’s utterly brazen with his flippant U turns, bare faced lies and policy changes. This another insight into how he works, and it stinks.
Still very early days, but Sunak is currently having a very good year and I think he has restored some confidence in the government, especially from people like myself who usually vote Tory but were fed up. I don’t want to say I would vote for him, but it’s lot more likely than it was a few months ago.
He’s had an ok week, as opposed to v good year, but credit due nonetheless for the NI deal.
Wait until fuel bills rise, a million come off existing mortgage rates and thousands of hospital appts are cancelled next week due to 3 days of doctor strikes . Some good stuff on trade minutiae re: NI, will barely register.
Doesn’t mean Starmer not got work still to do though.
It’s small steps in the grand scheme I agree, but compared to the last 5 or so years of utter ineptitude, it’s quite refreshing to have a PM getting things done and it implies competence which has been sorely lacking. As I say, it’s not won me back completely, but it’s made me look up in hope.
Yes I’m not a supporter, but I’m no longer embarrassed by who we have as a PM. He clearly works much harder than Bojo and much smarter than Mad Liz.
He also clearly took a much more strategic view of economic priorities – i.e: NI and the EU relationship. Credit due, although was always inevitable we had to grow up.
One still senses he lacks some experience, but that’ll be growing every day esp with the in tray he faces. Certainly Starmer has to be his A game to beat him.
And this will all disappear if or when Labour come to power? His performance regarding the Covid lockdowns worry me.
No course not. Will take some time. But Sunak has been party to these policy meltdowns whereas Starmer has not. Always difficult for a Govt after 14-15yrs to look fresh even without some terrible positions to defend. Things should be moving in right direction by next election one hopes, but suspicion he just may run out of time.
And he was instrumental in the defenestration of Nicola Sturgeon by blocking the GRR bill. Incidentally, Sue Grey was a vociferous opponent in Whitehall of Sunak doing so, arguing it would weaken the Union. I would say he has done more to strengthen the Union than any PM in a long time – dishing the Scots Nats and easing the East/West NI border issues.
The economy looks to be heading in the right direction too – inflation down and PMI Composite Index (the best leading indicator of the economy in a few months time) is roaring.
But as ever, it is the illegal immigrants problem that will make or break his re-election attempt. Stop the Boats and the pitch becomes – vote Labour and the boats come back. Easy one for 2019 Tory voters.
Quite right, sorting out the small boats from Calais is his next step. If he can deal with that, I think the polls will start to look very favourable for the Conservatives, especially if the economy keeps improving.
He has a chance now as a result of better EU relationship. Let’s be honest French and EU help was always going to be half-hearted when we were being an arse and untrustworthy over NI and a prior Treaty agreement we’d made with them. Now we’ve started to act like an adult they should help us more. That’ll have been in the NI calculation too and I bet a side-conversation that was had. But regardless it’s a v difficult problem. Macron will have constituents saying why should they stop them and keep them in France. I suspect we’ll have to set something up on that side of the channel to allow them to apply, but then we must process quickly and help French send those not successful back home.
Until Claude Juncker popped up to say Sunak has been slightly misleading in how he presented the Windsor Framework!
Worth bearing mind it wasn’t PartyGate findings that brought down Bojo. If anything Gray was criticised for being too lenient, taking too long and not investigating all the parties. Bojo went for repeatedly lying and failure to take seriously things like Owen Patterson/Chris Pincher.
The indignation needs to also be tempered by the delay in the Parliamentary Inquiry which smacks of political obfuscation on part of the Tories. Similarly the delay in the Covid Inquiry where it must get into the shenanigans regarding the award of PPE contracts to ‘VIP lane donors’ and Dido Harding’s (Tory Life Peer) appointment to run Test & Trace which was a shambles. These aren’t quite the same as the Gray appt but really if one wants to take the moral high ground.
That said Starmer can have predicted this furore and were there really no better candidates?
She’d be ideal for Starmer wouldn’t she?
Not qualified to judge, but interesting he’s gone more the civil servant professional direction (like Blair and Jonathan Powell) as opposed to an ex-politician/hack route (like more recent Tory PMs). I would hope he’s going for professionalism and competence rather than any specific political intrigue. Her rep, pre this story, suggests that.
Meh. If a tory had led the enquiry, no one would have batted an eyelid.
Tory chaired the Parliamentary Cmtte that published yesterday and included photos and texts. It’s the photos and texts that have got everyone wide-eyed. Gray never released those.
Painful facts I know.
Glad to see this has got the tinfoil hat brigade so exercised.
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