Opinion: Two questions Sue Gray must answer about her Covid party probe, and one for us

"If the purpose of the partygate inquiry is to reassure us, then we’re being asked to accept a string of foolish choices," a former civil servant writes
Photo: Photo: GOV.UK

By Douglas Board

11 Jan 2022

As partygate intensifies, the last thing the government needs is questions for Sue Gray, the official in charge of the inquiry. Unfortunately, the independent inquiry into Greensill provides two: 1. What party, or party-like, conduct during lockdown would Gray consider outrageous? 2. If Gray discovered it, what would she do? 

When journalists asked last week whether Gray would re-do interviews already done by her recused boss, Simon Case, an easy response lay on the table. Suppose we had heard from Gray, "My inquiry will be rigorous and completed at pace. I will not hesitate to re-interview where I judge this necessary." We would have been reassured; interviewees would have been warned; and the option of doing no re-interviewing would have remained open.  

Instead, No.10 said that Gray had "picked up" the work already done. She had "been briefed" by the relevant team. Unnamed sources said that re-interviewing was "unlikely". The inquiry would be "pragmatic". 

Was this careless messaging or a deliberate dog whistle? If No.10 was talking to us, then what happened was at best a disquieting mistake. But if the audience which mattered was Tory MPs, then the message behind "pragmatic" was clear: guys, we’ve got this under control. 

Last week was yet another iteration of the dilemma which has dogged the partygate inquiry from the off. Was it carelessness or hubris on Simon Case’s part to accept responsibility for an inquiry which would lead to his own office door? The question came up again with the decision to replace him with Sue Gray. 

Gray is a formidable former head of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office: so we have been told more than once. She has conducted many inquiries. But if that was the extent of Case’s (or No.10’s) thinking, then that was careless. Her name appears 35 times in the Boardman report into Greensill

What connects Gray, Greensill and partygate is whether she understood, and understands, her role to be independent of the wishes of her boss, the cabinet secretary (and his boss, the prime minister). While Gray is now a second permanent secretary in another department, Case is still head of the civil service. Boris is still prime minister. Civil servants only have very narrow legal justifications for embarrassing ministers publicly. Their careers depend on not doing so. 

Pages 53 to 55 of the Greensill report from July 2021 show how determinedly the then-cabinet secretary (the late Jeremy Heywood) wanted Lex Greensill to get a CBE. The report quotes Sue Gray as writing: "I’ve told [an official in the Honours and Appointments Secretariat] that Lex must remain an OBE and while we can put him forward for a CBE, it will be outrageous if he gets one." Greensill got his CBE four months later.  

"If Batman has to step down from leading an inquiry into Gotham City in embarrassing circumstances, why is Robin the right replacement? There is no shortage of retired permanent secretaries who could have been asked"

Since no new evidence came forward in his favour, Gray presumably still finds this outcome outrageous. But she was and is a civil servant. Criticising in public is not what she is paid to do. Instead, she was promoted. But her ethics and courage are not the issue. The issue is the foolishness or cleverness of asking a serving civil servant (Simon Case) to act as judge and jury over his political superiors; and when that fell apart, to double down by asking someone more junior.  

If Batman has to step down from leading an inquiry into Gotham City in embarrassing circumstances, why is Robin the right replacement? There is no shortage of retired permanent secretaries, or former cabinet secretaries, who could have been asked, let alone casting the net wider.  

Which brings us back to the dilemma with which we started. If the purpose of the partygate inquiry is to reassure us, then we’re being asked to accept a string of foolish choices. If the point is to buttress the government and reassure its supporters, that’s another matter. 

Top leadership choices are rarely easy. In my book Elites: can you rise to the top without losing your soul?, I describe an instance from my own career when I sat in the Cabinet Office with several permanent secretaries complicit in something possibly illegal, and certainly lacking in ethics and courage. Since then, years have passed in which long-standing checks and balances which define and defend the civil service’s role have been eroded further – most recently the announcement of the politician and Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart as the government’s preferred candidate to be the next first civil service commissioner. 

I’m sure Sue Gray will handle the job she has been given brilliantly. It’s down to us to flush out what job she has been asked to do – and to consider whether, as pressure mounts for her to interview the prime minister, her remit is now untenable. 

Douglas Board is a writer and thinker on leadership and a visiting professor at the University of Chichester. He worked for the Treasury and then as a headhunter, including into senior positions in the UK civil service. He tweets @BoardWryter

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