The war of words over Sue Gray escalated on Friday as Boris Johnson said it was “surreal” and “particularly concerning” that the civil servant who investigated Partygate will soon be working for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
Labour has rejected claims that her potential appointment as Mr Starmer’s new chief of staff was “dodgy”.
Senior Conservatives have reacted furiously to the move by the Labour leader to hire Ms Gray, who headed the inquiry into lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street when Boris Johnson was prime minister.
Mr Johnson said: “So it is surreal to discover that the Committee proposes to rely on evidence culled and orchestrated by Sue Gray, who has just been appointed Chief of Staff to the Leader of the Labour Party.
“This is particularly concerning given that the Committee says it is proposing to rely on ‘the findings in the Second Permanent Secretary’s report’ as ‘relevant facts which the Committee will take into account.”
Ms Gray quit as second permanent secretary in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities yesterday. The bombshell offer from Labour is now being reviewed by Parliament’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba).
It will advise Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on whether the move is “unsuitable”.
The possible appointment has sparked howls of disapproval from Conservatives who believe the PM should block it. Mr Johnson’s former parliamentary aide, the Tory MP Alexander Stafford, said: “This really doesn’t pass the sniff test, it really undermines the work that she’s done, undermines the civil service and really puts in question Sir Keir’s complete judgment.”
Another close ally of Mr Johnson, the Conservative peer and former party Treasurer Lord Marland, added on LBC that while he is a “great fan” of Ms Gray “we always knew she was a bit of a lefty”.
“If I’m honest, I’m not sure this is very judicious,” Lord Marland said.
But Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said it was “ludicrous” of Mr Johnson’s allies to suggest the partygate scandal was manufactured to bring down the former prime minister.
She also dismissed claims that Ms Gray might use inside knowledge from her long Whitehall career against the Tories.
Ms Powell told Times Radio: “I think that’s just a ludicrous claim by Boris Johnson and stands in stark contrast to what he said at the time the report was published.”
Asked about Conservative concerns that Ms Gray could bring privileged material from Whitehall to Sir Keir’s office, Ms Powell said: “Absolutely not. And, of course, there’s no suggestion whatsoever that Sue would reveal any of that information.”
Under the civil service code, officials of Ms Gray’s seniority must wait a minimum of three months before taking up outside employment.
But Acoba’s rules also state that a “longer waiting period” may be appropriate where there is public concern about a particular appointment.
The Cabinet Office has said it is “reviewing the circumstances under which she resigned.” A spokesman for Acoba declined to comment.
Dave Penman, head of the civil servants’ union the FDA, said it would be “vindictive” and “churlish” if Mr Sunak was to block Ms Gray’s move to Labour.
He also dismissed claims by some senior Tories that the partygate inquiry was a Left-wing plot.
He told Sky News: “What we’re talking about here is someone who has given her life to public service. She had a fearsome reputation for her integrity. She’s done some of the most difficult jobs in government and I think it’s really disappointing to see ministers now try to trash that simply because she’s decided to take a very different job later on in her career.”
But he did acknowledge that the potential appointment was “unusual” — a view echoed by Alex Thomas from the Institute for Government think tank. Mr Thomas told Times Radio: “Sue Gray can’t unknow what she knows. And if she does this job, I do think she needs to be very clear she’s not going to share details of the work that she did in government.”
In her partygate report Ms Gray criticised “failures of leadership and judgment” in No 10 and said “the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility”.
Her investigation detailed how officials drank so much they were sick, sang karaoke, became involved in altercations and abused security and cleaning staff.
Mr Johnson received one of the 126 fines eventually issued by the Metropolitan Police following its own probe into parties in Downing Street and Whitehall. Former Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said last night: “It is hard not to feel that she has been rewarded and offered a plum job for effectively destroying a prime minister and creating a coup.”
However, Ms Powell said the move to bring in Ms Gray was part of a plan by Sir Keir to prepare Labour for government if they win the next election, expected late next year.
She said: “Keir Starmer has made no secret of the fact that what he’s been looking for these last stages ahead of a general election is somebody that can come and help him get ready should we win the next election.
“He’s got big ideas about how he wants to change the way that government operates, how it works... he needs someone to help with over the next year or so to really get ready for what will be quite a radical shift should we win the next election.”
A Labour Party spokesman said: “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.”