Civil service union leader Dave Penman and shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell have reacted with astonishment to attacks on the integrity of former Cabinet Office second permanent secretary Sue Gray, who is set to become chief of staff to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
News of Gray’s resignation yesterday sparked accusations that her damning Partygate report from last year had been undermined. Former Cabinet Office minister and Boris Johnson loyalist Jacob Rees-Mogg said the probe now looked “like a left-wing stitch-up”.
Others viewed the Labour leader’s keenness to appoint one of the nation’s most respected senior civil servants to run his team as an important preparation for moving into government after the next election.
FDA general secretary Dave Penman said the suggestion that Gray’s report about Covid-restrictions-breaking parties held at No.10 and other government departments was biased were “extraordinary”.
“What we’re talking about here is someone who’s given her life to public service,” Penman told Sky News.
“She has a fearsome reputation for her integrity, she’s done some of the most difficult jobs in government, and it’s really disappointing to see ministers now trying to trash that because she’s decided to take a very different job later on in her career.”
Penman said Gray, who was most recently in charge of the Union and Constitution Directorate at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, was “more than capable” of taking on a big new job for the Labour Party and separating it from her former role.
“Many civil servants are Labour supporters. Many civil servants are Conservative supporters. You don’t become a civil servant unless you’re prepared to put that to the side while you do your job,” he said.
“Those that are criticising the Partygate report are not saying there’s anything wrong with it. They’re just trying to smear it.”
Gray’s appointment as chief of staff to Starmer is subject to the same scrutiny by anti-corruption watchdog the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments that other top officials’ post-government roles are put through. It could suggest a delay of up to two years before Gray takes up her new job, but a gap of three-to-12 months is more likely.
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Starmer would abide by Acoba’s recommendation.
“Sue Gray is a hugely respected civil servant with a lot of experience,” she said. “Keir has made no secret of the fact that he has been looking for someone with that recent government experience who can help the Labour Party and help him personally and the shadow cabinet get ready for that big transition to government. He’s wanted to get the best person for the job.”
Powell added: “The suggestion that somehow this colours Sue Gray’s independent and impartial reports into Partygate and those other matters is ludicrous.”
Institute for Government programme director Alex Thomas – whose previous career as a civil servant included a stint as principal private secretary to then-cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood – agreed the attacks on Sue Gray’s independence rang hollow.
But he acknowledged that her appointment as Starmer’s chief of staff would be unprecedented in some respects.
“This is unusual. It’s surprising,” he said on the Today programme. “Although civil servants have crossed the aisle before – Jonathan Powell [as chief of staff for Tony Blair, or others. It hasn’t happened before with a civil servant who is still serving with this seniority and with the public profile and career history in the deep centre of government that Sue Gray has.”
Thomas said it would be important for the Labour Party to closely follow Acoba's advice on how long Gray should wait before taking up her new role.
“It’s normally three months, sometimes six months,” he said. “I would say it’s reasonable for it to be at the higher end of ‘normal’ – so six months, 12 months. Two years feels a little bit disproportionate to me. But obviously the committee will look at that and take a view in the round.”
Acoba is currently chaired by Conservative Party peer Lord Eric Pickles, who was communities secretary from 2010 to 2015.
Rees-Mogg has not been the only former minister to criticise Gray’s prospective appointment and question her impartiality over the past 24 hours.
Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries and ex-housing minister Lord Stephen Greenhalgh both voiced their concerns. Before becoming a peer, Greenhalgh was one of Boris Johnson’s deputies as mayor of London.
Another former Johnson aide, Rother Valley MP Alexander Stafford, insisted Gray’s appointment was “dodgy”.
“How can somebody who only a matter of months ago condemned one prime minister then go and work for the leader of the opposition in such a close capacity?” he said on the Today programme. “This really doesn’t pass the sniff test.
“It undermines the work that she’s done and undermines the civil service and really puts in question Sir Keir’s complete judgment.
“This really does put in question not just the Partygate allegations but also Sir Kier’s judgment. This is very off.”
Stafford’s interview was ended by programme presenter Nick Robinson after the MP repeatedly failed to answer questions on whether he wanted a new investigation into Partygate or if he believed Gray had played any role in the illegal get-togethers her Partygate report covered.