Dave Penman: Sound ideas and worrying signs from the Sue Gray investigation

Reviews of civil service code and its counterpart for special advisers suggest Boris Johnson thinks he has found a get-out-of-jail card on Partygate
Photo: Brian Parker/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Dave Penman

01 Feb 2022

In the end, it was less 50 pages of Gray and more 50 paragraphs. Sue Gray’s update, as this was not a report, was able to draw some conclusions and throw in a few recommendations, but it lacked the detail many in Westminster and beyond had been waiting for.

There was still some high drama, and one of those days that we all kind of yearn for in parliament where it’s not all “can the prime minister confirm what a fabulous style icon he is and that the children in my constituency rejoice at the mere mention of his name?” Theresa May’s intervention was succinct and brutal, Ian Blackford’s was neither. 

The outcome of the police investigation is now crucial as they are investigating a number of events that the prime minister personally attended. It raises the prospect of him being fined for breach of the Covid rules, which would probably be the tipping point for a number of Tory MPs. If he escapes that, then whatever the detail contained in the report – if it sees the light of day – it will be more easily swept aside by an emboldened prime minister who, let’s face it, has been here before.

There was enough in Sue Gray’s report to give some indication of what she has uncovered in her investigation. Her conclusion that “there were failures of leadership and judgement by different parts of No.10 and the Cabinet Office at different times” will be a difficult read for many in Whitehall.

The conclusion that there was “excessive consumption of alcohol” and that staff who “wanted to raise concerns about behaviours they witnessed at work but at times felt unable to do so” again points to a broader issue of the culture in No.10.

Without greater detail, it’s impossible to conclude how these failures have occurred and where the division of responsibility lies between the political and civil service leadership. Sue Gray has rightly concluded that publishing the limited details she is able to would not be appropriate. It would inevitably focus on what were actually the more minor offences and paint a partial picture at this stage. 

Organisational failures are always more complex than personal ones. Each individual, from the most junior civil servant to the Prime Minister, has to be accountable for the decisions they made, but understanding how a culture developed where these events could happen without challenge is much more difficult.

The report draws one clear conclusion, that the scale of the No.10 operation has outgrown the management structure, leading to fragmented and complicated leadership structures. Never a good thing in an organisation that is designed to make decisions and have clear lines of accountability for them.

“The only code that is long overdue for reform, and that has a series of recommendations for improvement outstanding, is the ministerial code”

 

Johnson’s announcement that he is creating a prime minister’s department, led by a permanent secretary, is an indication that he recognises some of this. The name may be a bit of theatre, but creating a stronger No.10 operation led by a permanent secretary, as others have done before, makes sense for a prime minister not known for his self-discipline and a government that has centralised a lot of power.

The prime minister clearly had to offer something up in parliament to quiet the baying mob, but his announcement that there will be a review of the civil service code and code of conduct for special advisers, is possibly the strongest hint of what is yet to come. There is nothing to suggest that there are gaps in either of these codes or that a lack of understanding of their obligations led to the events at hand. Indeed, the only code that is long overdue for reform, and that has a series of recommendations for improvement outstanding, is the ministerial code. Of that, there was no mention.

Is this an indication of the donkeys on which the prime minister will be pinning the tails when it comes to his conclusion on why others, and not he, should bear the responsibility? A “strengthening of codes” is a bit of red meat to throw at the backbenches by a PM desperate to show he’s “done something”. With no detail or rationale offered, we wait with bated breath, but it was probably the clearest signal that he will point to the failures of others as his get out of jail free card.

In all of this, it is easy to overlook one of the most extraordinary elements. In the middle of a political storm that could lead to the removal of a prime minister, a civil servant – not independent as some have conveniently sought to describe her, but impartial, honest, objective and with enormous integrity – has been tasked with examining and reporting on these events. It is no hyperbole to say that the fate of the prime minister and government was, to some degree, in her hands.

There were some who doubted that this could even be achieved by a civil servant. Inevitably, some of this has been about Sue Gray herself and her own formidable reputation. All of her experience in handling the most difficult political and sensitive issues in government will have helped her prepare for this task. But in the end, what she relied on and what her team embodied, were the best of those civil service values. A government that recognises and utilises this is less likely to get itself in to trouble in the first place. A lesson this government could also benefit from learning quickly.

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA

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