Just before Christmas, Ministers took the fateful – and controversial – decision to block Scotland’s new Gender Recognition Bill. Inside the London Government, there had been an intense debate about the best way to prevent legislation that would lower the age at which children could apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate from 18 to 16.
But there was unanimity that action needed to be taken due to its impact on the Equality Act. All except from one very senior Government official.
On December 22, Sue Gray, Second Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office, sent an email to those discussing the legislation.
‘I found reference to S35 [the section of the Scotland Act that allows the Scottish Secretary to exercise a veto] difficult,’ she wrote, ‘but I found even more difficult the words about stopping the Bill. But as you say, this seems to have been agreed.’
One Minister who was involved in the discussions responded by saying: ‘It was strange. We were trying to stop a piece of legislation that was dangerous for women and children.
It’s true Sue Gray’s (pictured) ‘independent’ report into the No 10 lockdown breaches has been seemingly tarnished by her move to Labour
‘And one of the most senior civil servants in the country was attempting to block us. We couldn’t understand why.’
Some inside Government think that question was answered last week, when it was announced that Gray had resigned from the Civil Service to become Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. As another Minister said: ‘Labour in Scotland supported the Gender Recognition Bill. And the last thing Starmer wanted was a big row about it. The fact Sue Gray was preparing to jump ship to him brings her whole stance into doubt.’
Over the past few days, the fury over Gray’s appointment has primarily been led by supporters of Boris Johnson, who claimed her appointment proved the former PM had been the victim of ‘a Left-wing stitch-up’ over Partygate.
It’s true Gray’s ‘independent’ report into the No 10 lockdown breaches has been seemingly tarnished by her move to Labour. But the basic facts of what Johnson did and said during lockdown are a matter of public record. And they are not altered by Gray’s sudden career move.
However, what her dramatic leap across the political divide does expose is the fiction of British Civil Service neutrality, the fickle nature of the way the British political establishment polices itself, and the ongoing hypocrisy and self-righteousness of Starmer.
Gray’s supporters have furiously denied any wrongdoing on her part. ‘In her role as Head of Ethics and Propriety, she acted with enormous diligence, integrity and professionalism, earning her the trust of successive Prime Ministers and Ministers, even when she was giving them some very difficult messages,’ wrote former Civil Service head Lord (Bob) Kerslake, who incidentally did some work for the Labour Party when it was led by Jeremy Corbyn. ‘It is very hard to imagine her departing from those principles now.’
Well, it’s only hard if you totally ignore the fact Gray has spent the past few months advising Ministers on the most sensitive issues in government, while secretly preparing to jump ship to their political opponents, and help oust them from office.
The Civil Service Code is clear. It explains that signatories are obliged to ‘always act in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence of all those with whom you have dealings’. And it adds: ‘You must not deceive or knowingly mislead Ministers.’ Gray did, indeed, manage to retain the confidence of Ministers. But only because she kept them in the dark over her negotiations to join Sir Keir Starmer’s party.
As one said to me hours after her appointment emerged: ‘At the start of this week, Sue Gray was sitting in a meeting with every Cabinet Minister, in which the most sensitive details about the Government’s EU negotiations were discussed. Three days later she pops up working for Keir Starmer. It’s a disgrace.’
A key part of Gray’s defence is that her appointment will be fully scrutinised by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA). But again, the regulations are crystal clear. The Business Appointment Rules for Crown Servants state that people leaving the Civil Service ‘should not accept or announce a new appointment or offer of employment before it has been approved’.
What Gray’s dramatic leap across the political divide does expose is the fiction of British Civil Service neutrality, the fickle nature of the way the British political establishment polices itself, and the ongoing hypocrisy and self-righteousness of Sir Keir Starmer (pictured)
But last Thursday, a Labour spokesman confirmed: ‘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.’
Labour and Gray are self-evidently flouting these procedures. And going to increasingly desperate lengths to cover up that fact.
Starmer and his colleagues have repeatedly been asked how long they were in discussion with Gray before her appointment was announced. Repeatedly, they have refused to answer.
When asked about the propriety of Gray potentially using information gleaned from her time serving in some of the most sensitive areas of government to assist Labour into power, they ludicrously claimed ‘the role that Sue will be doing is entirely separate from our Election operation’. Yet they know full well that, in opposition, everything a political party does forms part of their attempt to secure the seals of office. And as chief of staff, Gray will now be Starmer’s most senior adviser in the run-up to, and through, a bitterly fought Election campaign.
When asked, Starmer defended her appointment by claiming: ‘I want to ensure that we’re in a position to deliver for the whole of the United Kingdom and that’s why I’m so pleased that people of real quality, really respected, want to join the Labour team.’ But as one of the UK’s highest-profile civil servants, she could have helped deliver his agenda in her current role.
The only logical rationale for the move is that Starmer – and Gray – want the flexibility of operating in a more overtly political way.
A pattern is starting to emerge here. Labour’s leader likes nothing better than to lecture others on the need for integrity and transparency in public office. But when it come to his own operation, the rules suddenly seem to change. There was the making, then breaking, of his 10 Pledges. The ruthless defenestration of his ‘colleague and friend’ Jeremy Corbyn. An opportunistic repudiation of his long-held commitment to reversing Brexit.
And now the grubby recruitment of Gray. Starmer’s allies respond by claiming politics is a rough trade, and his own sharp practice is justified by the need to transform his party, and end a decade of Tory misrule.
And the polls certainly indicate such steely-eyed cynicism is reaping its reward. But Labour’s ‘butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths’ preaching is starting to grate.
Over the past few days, the fury over Gray’s appointment has primarily been led by supporters of Boris Johnson (pictured), who claimed her appointment proved the former PM had been the victim of ‘a Left-wing stitch-up’ over Partygate
Last year, Starmer set out the principles he claimed would underpin his premiership. They were selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
At some point over the past few weeks, Sue Gray would have sat down with Starmer, or one of his allies, and agreed to assist them in their stated mission of driving the Tories from power.
Then she would have shaken hands, said her goodbyes, and returned to her work briefing a completely unsuspecting Rishi Sunak and his Ministers.
Integrity. Openness. Honesty. If the former occupant of the Government’s post of Director General, Propriety and Ethics represents the epitome of these values, the British state is in an even worse mess than many of us feared.