Labour plans Sue Gray-led Whitehall shakeup

Former Cabinet Office and DLUHC No.2 is set to start work as Kier Starmer’s chief of staff next month
Sue Gray Photo: Cabinet Office

By Jim Dunton

22 Aug 2023

Former Whitehall enforcer Sue Gray will be tasked with creating a plan for changing the structure of government when she starts work as Labour Party leader Keir Starmer’s chief of staff next month, according to a news report.

Gray resigned as second perm sec at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in March this year after a civil service career that saw her rise to become one of the most powerful and trusted senior officials in government.

News of her plans to take a key role in the Labour Party caused uproar among some sections of the Conservative Party, with allegations that her investigation into the Partygate scandal could no longer be viewed as impartial. Many called for appointments watchdog ACOBA to impose the maximum two-year wait for her to start work at the party.

But last month ACOBA gave Gray the go-ahead to commence work for Starmer from September when her priorities will include looking at the potential for machinery-of-government changes to aid the delivery of the Labour leader’s “missions” for government.

The cross-cutting missions – securing the highest growth in the G7, making Britain a green energy superpower, breaking down barriers to opportunity, fixing the NHS and making streets safer – are acknowledged by Labour to require “a sharp break from business-as-usual government”.

A senior Labour Party source told the Times that Gray would be asked to propose ways of better aligning departments to deliver on the goals.

“What Sue Gray will be doing when she starts in September is working out what needs to change in government to make the missions happen,” they said.

“Some of that will be about traditional machinery of government changes – are the departments we will inherit the right ones – but also things like, can you do more with cabinet committees, or have cross-government teams with a specific focus [on particular missions]. She won’t be thinking about the election, but how we will make stuff happen if we win.”

With the next general election due no later than January 2025, the Labour Party source said Gray was expected to take part in access talks with the civil service about the party’s plans for office and potential reform. The party has had an opinion-polls lead of 15 points or more over the Conservatives for most of the past year.

Tradition dictates that the official party of opposition can engage in talks with officials about its plans for government, provided the backing of the prime minister is given. The Times reported that Starmer is expected to ask prime minister Rishi Sunak for permission to start formal talks with the civil service about Labour’s agenda for government as soon as next month.

The Labour Party source said: “We know we need to find a way of making government work better and Sue’s first job will be thinking about that and talking to the civil service in access talks about making it happen.”

According to an Institute for Government briefing, every prime minister since 1964 has authorised access talks requests from the opposition, recognising their importance for government.

Briefing author Catherine Haddon noted that then-prime minister Gordon Brown gave Conservative Party leader David Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne a “generous” 18 months of contact with civil servants ahead of the 2010 general election.

However she added that the surprise nature of Theresa May’s “snap” general election in 2017 meant Starmer’s predecessor as Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had only the duration of the election period for talks.

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