Row as top UK public servant moves to join opposition as political adviser

By on 06/03/2023 | Updated on 06/03/2023
A screenshot of Sue Gray from a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities video seeking Levelling Up directors.
A screenshot of Sue Gray from a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities video seeking Levelling Up directors.

A top UK civil servant has sent shockwaves through the government after it was revealed that she had left her post ahead of likely joining the opposition Labour party as an adviser.

Sue Gray, who was until Thursday the second permanent secretary at the UK Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, left her post after it was revealed she had been offered a job by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Gray, who among other roles had previously served as director general, propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office, also led the so-called ‘Partygate’ inquiry into a series of gatherings held in then-prime minster Boris Johnson’s No.10 Downing Street when coronavirus lockdown restrictions were in place.

When the report was published last May, Johnson said that he was “appalled” by some of the behaviour in the report, which showed get togethers being held in person when the UK was in lockdown, or had other restrictions on who citizens could meet in a bid to tackle the virus.

However, after Gray’s likely move to the Labour party was revealed, a friend of Johnson argued that the revelation “brings into question the entire foundation of the Partygate story”.

The source also said: “The politics of this are very, very difficult for the civil service clearly because she had an incredibly decisive role in putting together the process which ultimately led to the prime minister’s resignation. And now she is Keir Starmer’s most senior political appointee.”

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‘An almighty row’

The Institute for Government think tank said that Gray’s move “causes a civil service headache”, with programme director Alex Thomas stating that while Gray is not the first civil servant to switch to politics, “her move straight from being a serving permanent secretary to the leader of the opposition’s chief adviser was bound to create an almighty row”.

He added: “It gives easy ammunition to those who claim that the civil service is resistant to serving the government of the day, and risks making it harder for serving officials and ministers to work together and build an environment of trust. That is now the main concern for civil servants.”

However, Thomas also said that “those who claim the appointment undermines Gray’s previous work as a civil servant are wrong”.

“If anything the criticism of her partygate report was that it diverted blame from Boris Johnson. The parties happened, and in the end it wasn’t the Gray report that triggered his fall. As was widely acknowledged during the investigation, including when it suited him by the then-prime minister, Gray has served governments of all political colours consistently and with integrity.”

Gray has also been supported by a host of senior former ministers and officials.

Francis Maude, who when he was an MP served as Cabinet Office minister from 2010 to 2015, said that he worked closely with Sue Gray during this period and “never had the slightest reason to question either her integrity or her political impartiality”.

In a letter to The Times newspaper, he said: “She is not the first civil servant to move into a political role, and will not be the last. We should be as relaxed about this as we should be about people who have had previous political involvement coming into the civil service. As a Conservative minister I worked happily with at least one civil servant who had previously been a Labour special adviser (and in that role had been a political appointee). Regardless of any political background or leaning, civil servants must of course comply with the civil service obligation of impartiality while they are in post.”

Gray’s appointment will now be subject to advice from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which provides advice to former ministers and civil servants when they take on new jobs. The committee can recommend a waiting period before any new role is taken.

A spokesperson for Labour confirmed the job offer had been made. “The Labour party has offered Sue Gray the role of chief of staff to the leader of the opposition. We understand she hopes to accept the role subject to the normal procedures. Keir Starmer is delighted she is hoping to join our preparations for government and our mission to build a better Britain.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson confirmed Gray had left the department, and added that they were “reviewing the circumstances under which she resigned”.

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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