Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin has told MPs that contact between the Labour Party and Sue Gray over her recruitment as chief of staff for Sir Keir Starmer may have broken civil service rules.
Gray, a former second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and most recently number two at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, quit government last week to lead Starmer’s team.
Her move is subject to vetting by anti-corruption watchdog the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which could recommend a cooling-off period of anything from three months to two years before Gray takes up post.
News of the Partygate report author and former ethics head’s departure from the civil service to a political role prompted fury among Conservative MPs. In a debate in response to an urgent question in parliament yesterday, Quin questioned whether proper processes had been followed.
“This is an exceptional situation,” he said. “It is unprecedented for a serving permanent secretary to resign to seek to take up a senior position working for the leader of the opposition.
“The Cabinet Office is looking into the circumstances leading up to Sue Gray’s resignation in order to update the relevant civil service leadership and ministers of the facts.”
Quin said official guidance required senior civil servants to clear any contact with leading members of the opposition parties with ministers.
He was subsequently asked whether Gray had told DLUHC perm sec Sarah Healey about any discussions with the Labour Party before her resignation was announced.
“There is work in progress to ensure that all the facts are identified, but I am not aware that there were any such discussions prior to Thursday last week,” he said.
Quin pointedly did not attempt to criticise Gray, but he repeatedly called on the Labour Party and Starmer to set out full details of its contact with the former civil servant.
“Why are the opposition refusing to publish when they met with Sue Gray; why are they being evasive; and why can they not tell us what they discussed, where they met, and how often they met?” he asked. “Their refusal to do so prompts the question: exactly what is Labour trying to hide?”
He added: “There are now serious questions as to whether Labour, by acting fast and loose, undermined the rules and the impartiality of the civil service.
“Labour members must ask themselves why the leader of the opposition covertly met a senior civil servant and why those meetings were not declared.”
Conservative MP Mark Jenkinson suggested Gray had “trashed” her reputation as a “woman of integrity” and Starmer had done the same for his reputation as “Mr Rules” by refusing to publish the timeline for their meetings.
Quin agreed. “I think that is the case, sadly,” he said. “I think it is, but it could easily be changed by simple publication.”
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said the biggest threat to the impartiality of the civil service was the Conservative Party and “its decade of debasing and demeaning standards in public life”.
“Conservative members talk about trust,” she said. “This debate says more about the delusions of the modern Conservative Party than it does about anything else.”
Labour MP Barry Sheerman said claims that the civil service itself was up in arms about Gray’s potential move to work for Starmer were “nonsense”.
Yesterday, The Times reported that Gray’s resignation from government came weeks after she was “blocked” from becoming permanent secretary at the newly-created Department for Business and Trade.
The department was launched in February’s machinery of government changes, which are breaking up the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and reconfiguring the Department for International Trade.
The Times said Gray’s appointment to the role had the backing of international trade secretary Kemi Badenoch, who is secretary of state of the new business-and-trade department, and levelling up secretary Michael Gove.
The paper said sources gave differing views on the involvement of cabinet secretary Simon Case, but added that the approach from Starmer followed the decision not to give Gray the perm-sec role.
Gareth Davies, who took up post as permanent secretary of DIT in January, was confirmed as perm sec of the new business-and-trade department on the day the machinery of government changes were announced.