There’s no escaping the fact that Sue Gray’s potential appointment as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff is extraordinary in every sense of the word. It’s hard to imagine a similar move by an official towards the opposition.
Civil servants go and work for political parties – some in higher positions, like Dan Rosenfield for Boris Johnson or Jonathan Powell for Tony Blair. Ironically, both were chiefs of staff.
It’s the direct shift from one to the other that is a cause for concern. Some of these concerns are valid, but most are not. There are few people who understand the complexities of this matter better than Gray himself. In a now different life, she would be the one advising the prime minister if it happened under her watch.
There are valid concerns. She has been at the heart of government throughout the 13 years that the Conservatives have been in power, and has also dealt with some of the most politically sensitive issues during that time. When the Prime Minister asked her to conduct the investigation into Partygate, he did so because the cabinet secretary had to step down from that role precisely because of a conflict of interest. Johnson not only needed a sure pair of hands, but also someone whose reputation for impartiality and integrity was beyond reproach. Gray was the obvious choice.
Related: Conspiracy theories about Sue Gray’s job at Labor are absurd – here’s why | Bob Kerslake
Nothing changed about that. The job of Acoba, the advisory committee on business appointments, chaired by former Conservative Cabinet minister Eric Pickles, is to examine potential appointments and see how conflicts can be resolved. Often these are financial roles where a minister or civil servant has played a role that could be beneficial to business, e.g. Here the question is more complicated, but legitimate concerns are not unfounded.
Permanently employed secretaries already have to complete a three-month ban on secondary employment. Officials at all levels know that what they see and do in their day-to-day work is confidential and often covered by the Official Secrets Act. Acoba will now grapple with how to provide the assurances the government is right to ask for. The PM would do well not to look like a football manager who has just lost his star striker to a rival and is now trying to block the transfer.
What is disappointing, though perhaps not surprising, is the speed at which those who actually know better, and who have worked with and respected Grey, are now making allegations of an 18-month left-wing conspiracy about Partygate.
It was the former Prime Minister who presented her with this particular poisoned chalice, and it was minister after minister who took to the airwaves praising her unimpeachable integrity to deflect awkward questions about what she or the Prime Minister knew.
She has done what she was asked to do as an impartial officer – establish the facts. These facts were then accepted by the Prime Minister. To suggest that she somehow played the long game to get rid of Johnson with one eye on the job is something for the Tin Hat Brigade. Instead, allies of the former prime minister, and now himself, are using the appointment to try to damage the credibility of the Privileges Committee’s investigation, which could face significant political consequences if found guilty.
If the dispute continues today, consider this: the threat to Johnson is the reason for this false outrage.