Jill Rutter sets out why the senior civil servant Sue Gray moving to become Labour leader Keir Starmer’s Chief of Staff is prompting questions from both the civil service and the current government.
A former senior civil servant takes an important political position with potential to influence the next government.
Yes, former permanent secretary Keir Starmer is indeed leading the Labour party and is hoping to be the next Prime Minister. Nobody is batting an eyelid about that, despite the fact that he sat around a table of permanent secretaries at their so-called Wednesday morning meetings until 2013, while David Cameron was Prime Minister. Two years later he became a Labour MP.
So why the fuss about Sue Gray – a second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, responsible for intergovernmental relations and the constitution – resigning with an offer to become Starmer’s Chief of Staff? Other civil servants have served in such roles – Jonathan Powell went straight from the British Embassy in Washington to head Tony Blair’s office; David Cameron also picked a former civil servant – Ed Llewellyn – as Chief of Staff.
There are plenty of former civil servants who are, or have been, ministers: Lucy Neville-Rolfe was defending the Retained EU Law Bill as a business minister this week, having worked in government for a long time; David Frost has reinvented himself, reaching the Cabinet, after half a lifetime as a diplomat and may now be seeking a seat.
But in all these cases people had either already done another job outside government before their move into politics or the job they left inside government was relatively obscure with little access to sensitive information. Having political views is no barrier to being a successful civil servant – the task is to leave them to one side and serve whatever government is elected.
So why is Sue Gray’s decision to move into the Labour leader’s backroom and help him prepare for government provoking far more questions and concerns than those cases ever did? After all, ensuring that an incoming Prime Minister, with no ministerial experience does not waste the first months (or years) trying to get to grips with the Whitehall machine is surely in the public interest? For this reason, shadow ministers are allowed to talk to the civil service for months in the run-up to an election in access talks to allow them to hit the ground running.
But there are three reasons why Gray’s appointment should give both her, and Starmer, pause for thought.
The first is simply her prominence and, connectedly, partygate. If a member of the public can remember the name of any civil servant, it is probably Sue Gray. She has become synonymous with the investigation she was forced to conduct (after Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, had to recuse himself) into No 10 and Cabinet Office ‘gatherings’ during lockdown.
Sue Gray did not bring down the Prime Minister, nor did she levy the fixed penalty notices that Johnson, Sunak and others received, nor will she judge whether the former PM needs to face suspension from the Commons for misleading Parliament.
But her post hoc declaration of political affiliation is allowing those who thought Boris Johnson was unfairly traduced to repaint his downfall as a civil service plot. Gray has allowed herself to become a political football.
Second is her seniority and the sensitivity of her role. Unlike her predecessors she has sat at the top table in government.
She also played a hugely sensitive role. While constitutional and intergovernmental relations may not be a key issue of contention between Labour and Conservatives in the next two years, Gray’s longstanding role as propriety and ethics supremo means she knows huge amounts about people who have served in government. She and Starmer will need to be absolutely scrupulous that none of that inside intelligence is ever used for political gain.
The third is trust. Ministers need to know that they can trust civil servants and that, while they are in office, their loyalty is to them and the government, within the constraints of the civil service code. That is the fundamental of an impartial, as opposed to a political, civil service. While former ministers, such as Lord Maude, have made clear they have absolutely no reason to doubt Gray’s integrity, it has provided ammunition – however unjustified – to every critic of the civil service who has argued that it has been frustrating a government whose agenda it dislikes and is already measuring the curtains for Keir Starmer.
Gray’s move comes at a time when ministerial-civil service relations are under unprecedented strain. This is a major reason why her move has been reportedly greeted with dismay by many senior civil servants, who think it will make their already difficult jobs harder.
The danger is that it persuades the Conservatives that they would only be able to trust civil servants to whom they apply a political litmus test to guarantee loyalty. It would be interesting to know how much Starmer or Gray thought about the collateral damage they were doing to the standing of the civil service when the offer was made.
Those are long-run issues. The immediate action is with the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and then the Prime Minister. But Gray herself is the expert at dealing with exactly these kinds of tricky issues. Starmer and Gray need not wait to show that they have worked out a plan to manage conflicts of interest.
They could take the initiative, acknowledge potential concerns, and set out in detail their plans. This would help reassure current and future ministers about their relations with civil servants.
All that said, it is good that Keir Starmer is trying to get to grips with how to operate the government machine so far in advance of any election. Successive prime ministers have made bad decisions early on about the capacity they need in No 10 – and have had to try two or three times before finding a set up that works for them.
If the Gray move happens, and a Starmer premiership makes a less faltering start than some of his predecessors (two big ‘ifs’), it may be time to consider if there should be official civil service support for more substantial transition planning than there is at present. That does not mean, however, that we should welcome this particular appointment at this specific time.
By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.