Sue Gray quits Whitehall to become Keir Starmer’s chief of staff

Former Cabinet Office and DLUHC second perm sec's plans prompt fury among some Conservatives
Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Live News

By John Johnston

03 Mar 2023

Veteran civil servant Sue Gray, who led last year’s Partygate investigation, has left her government position to take up a senior role in the Labour Party as leader Sir Keir Starmer's chief of staff.

Gray resigned from her job as head of the Union and Constitution Directorate in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to take up the new role yesterday afternoon.

“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,” a party spokesperson said, confirming the appointment.

“Keir Starmer is delighted she is hoping to join our preparations for government and our mission to build a better Britain.”

Gray has long enjoyed a formidable reputation in Whitehall but she rose to public prominence after she was appointed to lead the Partygate probe into allegations of lockdown-breaching gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall in 2020 and 2021.

Her report delivered a scathing assessment of then-prime minister Boris Johnson's behaviour during the pandemic, saying the repeated gatherings showed a “failure of leadership and judgement”.

News of her appointment led to fury among some Conservative MPs, who believe her decision to take up the new job with Labour casts doubts on political impartiality in relation to the Partygate investigation.

Conservative MP Brendan Clark-Smith said: “As a former Cabinet Office minister myself, I am genuinely shocked to see this.

"After the events of last year, people will quite understandably be questioning the appropriateness of this appointment, including issues of impartiality.”

Gray’s start date as Starmer’s new chief of staff is subject to the vetting process undertaken by anti-corruption watchdog the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which investigates new roles taken up by former ministers and ex-senior civil servants leaving the government.

She is likely to be forced to take at least a three-month break before starting with Labour, and prime minister Rishi Sunak could be given the final say on whether her appointment is permitted under the rules.

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office confirmed they were already planning to review the “circumstances under which she resigned”.

"We can confirm that Sue Gray has resigned from the post of second permanent secretary in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities," they said.

"This was accepted by the department permanent secretary and cabinet secretary with immediate effect.

“We will not be commenting further on individual personnel matters. We are reviewing the circumstances under which she resigned.”

Gray’s departure comes after a long career in the civil service, including a four-year stint as "propriety and ethics" head at the Cabinet Office, a role which saw her undertake dozens of investigations into ministers.

She subsequently took up a posting as permanent secretary at Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance in 2018 and was a candidate to become head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service in 2020.

Gray returned to Whitehall to become second perm sec at the Cabinet Office in spring 2021. The Union and Constitution Directorate was subsequently moved to DLUHC.

Gray will replace Sam White as Starmer’s chief of staff after he was removed from the post after just a year following reports he was unpopular with other members of the shadow cabinet.

John Johnston is a political reporter for CSW’s sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared

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