Sue Gray is not the first civil servant to switch to politics, but her exceptional public prominence and decades at the heart of the Cabinet Office make this difficult for the civil service, says Alex Thomas
Sir Keir Starmer’s courting of Sue Gray to become his chief of staff led to a moment of authentic astonishment in Whitehall and Westminster. The move is not unprecedented, and in recent times civil servants Jonathan Powell and Ed Llewellyn took on the job, as did Dan Rosenfield albeit after a gap. And other civil servants, from Lord Frost to Baroness Neville-Rolfe have crossed the aisle. Starmer himself was a civil servant, and as director of public prosecutions of permanent secretary rank. But none were as prominent or as central to successive governments as Sue Gray.
There are hurdles to navigate for Gray before she can take up the job. But whatever happens this will have consequences for the civil service. From the moment the offer of appointment was leaked it was clear that Gray had to resign. It is now important that Starmer and Gray say how they will manage conflicts of interest and whether there are matters on which Gray will recuse herself.
The ’revolving door’ rules could be a serious hurdle for Gray’s appointment
Before Gray takes up the post she needs to clear the much-criticised (not least by the IfG) process set out by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA). In most cases one of the problems with ACOBA is that it is toothless. But on this occasion the chair, Conservative peer Lord Pickles, and the prime minister – who signs off on any recommendation – have sharper fangs.
That is because Starmer, rightly making much of his promise that “honesty and integrity matter” could hardly refuse to follow the Committee’s recommendations, unless perhaps its conditions were seen as totally unreasonable. The maximum two year wait – which would mean Gray could not join Starmer until after the latest date for a general election – could look punitive – but a period above the three month minimum might be reasonable given Gray’s prior role.
The civil service’s problem is about future perceptions, not Gray’s previous work
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.
However, the job move does have potentially serious consequences for the civil service. It is important not to over-dramatise one official’s career change, but Gray was no ordinary official. Not seeking headlines, but often making them, and at the heart of handling so many sensitive government problems in her years in the Cabinet Office, 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. 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.
What Sunak, Case and Starmer need to do now
The prime minister, the cabinet secretary, the leader of the opposition and Sue Gray herself all now have jobs to do. The prime minister’s task is not to stoke outrage which would be counter-productive for the success of the government he leads. He must continue to cultivate trust and close working between ministers and their civil service teams. He should also agree a robust – but not punitive – set of ACOBA restrictions.
The cabinet secretary Simon Case’s job is to show that the civil service continues to work impartially and merits that trust. Gray’s move, while surprising, was not a sign of politicisation. Case should reinforce, publicly where necessary, the civil service’s impartiality and demonstrate how it is working on behalf of the government of the day. But that does not mean subservience. One of the reasons some of the most confident government ministers worked well with Gray was that she knew how to stand up to them. Impartiality does not conflict with telling the truth to power – the two are mutually reinforcing.
And Starmer and Gray need to follow any reasonable ACOBA ruling and be transparent about when discussions between them began. They should also give reassurance about how they will work together in a way that makes use of Gray’s valuable experience of how government works but does not exploit her specific knowledge from her civil service career. That is difficult – but both must have known the problem would arise when discussions about her doing the job began. They need to explain now how conflicts of interest will be avoided and on what subjects Gray will recuse herself.
There are two qualifications for any chief of staff. First, that their own views when doing the job become indivisible from their boss’s. Second that they stay out of the headlines. Nobody knows that better than Sue Gray. If and when Gray takes up the post it will benefit herself and both her former and future employers if from now on she stays in the background.