finance

Whitehall’s inquisitor in chief prepares to give verdict on No 10 parties


As David Cameron arrived at Downing Street for the first time in 2010, the awaiting officials fawned over the new prime minister and his plans. But one voice spoke up: “I’m sorry PM, but you can’t do that.” When chancellor George Osborne asked who it was, someone replied: “Sue Gray”.

In the shadowy world of Whitehall, where most top civil servants operate anonymously, the 65-year-old stands out as a member of the permanent British state who is unafraid to hold the most senior politicians to account.

Boris Johnson turned to Gray last month to investigate allegations about a series of parties that flouted Covid restrictions — including two held in the Downing Street garden that the prime minister attended.

After the cabinet secretary Simon Case was forced to recuse himself following reports of a festive gathering held outside his own office, Gray was seen by No10 as a clear and unimpeachable alternative.

Sir Oliver Letwin, former Cabinet Office minister, wrote in his memoirs that over the course of her career, her influence in Whitehall rivalled that of the prime minister.

“It took me precisely two years before I realised who it is that runs Britain. Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray, the head of ethics or something in the Cabinet Office. Unless she agrees, things just don’t happen,” he wrote.

Details of Gray’s back-story are limited. Early in her civil service career, she held roles in transport, health and the department of work and pensions, before taking a break in the late 1980s to run a pub with her husband Bill, a country and western singer, in Newry, Northern Ireland.

She is currently a permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, but her formidable reputation in Westminster stems from her years as director-general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018.

During that period, she was referred to by the BBC as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of” as the chief fixer for ex-cabinet secretary Lord Jeremy Heywood who described her as “user-friendly”, a voice that ministers like to hear.

In this role, her duties ranged from ruling whether MPs had broken ethics codes, to signing off the release of ministers’ memoirs, to setting pay for special advisers.

Westminster is littered with major scalps she has taken — including that of former deputy prime minister Damian Green who was forced to quit after Gray’s investigations. She also had a hand in the resignations of Andrew Mitchell, ex-chief whip, and Liam Fox, former defence secretary.

Dave Penman, head of the FDA union that represents senior civil servants, described Gray as “the classic example of the civil servant who, if you could cut in half, would have the words ‘integrity’ and ‘impartiality’ running through her like a stick of rock”.

Her critics, however, argue there is little transparency over her rulings and question what exactly her role as Whitehall’s go-to arbiter entails. One former special adviser said, “Sue has broken and made careers, yet it’s never clear exactly who she is accountable to. She is the ultimate embodiment of the deep state.”

Officials with knowledge of the lockdown parties inquiry noted that Gray is acutely aware of the political consequences that could play a decisive role in ending Johnson’s career. “She has to tread very carefully, even by her standards,” one said.

Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government think-tank, said Gray would probably be cautious about pinning the blame on individuals for the parties, be it senior civil servants or politicians.

“As far as possible, she will stick to fact. The consequences of her report may be very serious, but they won’t come in Sue Gray’s voice. But she is going to have to give some indication who went and the numbers,” she said.

“If there are allegations of politicians being present, she will have to take a view on that.”

Whereas with past inquiries, she had reported to the prime minister, this investigation is less clear cut given it involves Johnson personally. The findings will be sent to No 10 and are expected to be made public in some form thereafter.

But any political consequences are likely to be decided outside government if ministers and Tory MPs lose confidence in the prime minister.

Penman said that Gray would not shy away from implicating Johnson if she deemed it necessary. “She will, without fear or favour, get to the truth and lay it at the door of the prime minister whether he likes it or not, as she has done many times in her career.”

Some Tories urged Gray on Tuesday to speed up with her inquiry following the leaks about a party on May 20, 2020, and rising anger about Johnson’s involvement. “She needs to accelerate, it has to be done by tonight, tomorrow or the end of the week at the latest. It’s unsustainable for her to sit on it for a week,” one MP said.

But those in Whitehall close to her investigation said she would take as long as necessary. “The pressure is increasing, but she’s been here before. Sue will do it thoroughly and do it right.”



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