Finance

Sue Gray, the formidable official investigating a very British scandal

When the journalist Julian Glover began working as a speechwriter for then prime minister David Cameron in 2011, he was summoned to a room at the top of the Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall. In the nerve centre of Britain’s administrative state, a small, stern woman inquired if he had any conflicts of interest.

Glover responded that he was writing a historical book on the civil engineer Thomas Telford, who died in 1834. Sue Gray grimaced at the thought but, concluding it would not interfere with the work of government, she said: “Fine, but don’t hold the launch party in Downing Street.”

A decade later, the civil service’s most experienced adjudicator once again has parties on her mind. Gray is investigating a series of lockdown-busting gatherings in Downing Street that broke Covid restrictions. The findings of her report, set to be published next week, have the potential to topple Boris Johnson from the premiership.

At the top of Gray’s inquiry is a gathering on May 20 2020, attended by the prime minister himself. Johnson is alleged by his former chief aide, Dominic Cummings, to have had advance knowledge of the party — something No 10 strongly denies. Gray will have to unpick claim on top of claim to decide who is to blame and, crucially, whether Johnson has lied.

This weekend, Westminster is holding its breath for her conclusion. Johnson is facing insurrection in his Conservative party over the scandal and his claims not to have known about parties held in his home. His ministers are attempting to calm the unease with the simple statement: “Wait for the report.”

Gray was not Johnson’s first pick as investigator. When reports first emerged of illicit gatherings, Johnson asked Simon Case, head of the civil service, to pick up the file. Within days Case was forced to recuse himself after a gathering in his own office was uncovered. Downing Street had no choice but to turn to Gray, seen by many as a bastion of impartiality.

The Partygate inquiry is being conducted in secrecy: no one knows who exactly Gray is speaking to, when the report will be published or what form it will take. One former special adviser sums up her role as “the ultimate embodiment of the deep state”.

Gray’s biography is the subject of much discussion. Her civil service career includes roles in health, work and pensions, and transport. She took a career break in the 1980s to become a pub landlady in Northern Ireland’s Newry, an IRA stronghold at the peak of the Troubles, with her husband Bill, a country singer. Latterly, she has taken up a lower profile role as a permanent secretary at the department for levelling up, communities and local government.

But her reputation was forged during her tenure as director-general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018. As chief fixer for then cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, she was dubbed by the BBC “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of”. The ex-Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin wrote in his memoirs, “our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray . . . unless she agrees, things just don’t happen”.

As ethics chief, Gray ruled on everything from pay and conditions for special advisers to whether memoirs could be published. Whitehall was littered with political bodies from her inquiries: misdemeanours by Damian Green and Liam Fox ruled on by Gray both resulted in sackings from the cabinet.

Her colleagues paint a picture of a tough and highly competent mandarin. “She is incredibly pragmatic, someone who always comes up with solutions,” one says. Another calls her style “forthright without being domineering”. But critics claim she is too secretive. “It’s fairly obvious that very senior people are scared of her,” one cabinet office insider says. “Everyone knows she can be utterly steely.” 

There is a softer side to Gray. One admirer calls her a mean karaoke performer and says she adores cats, adding that she was responsible for introducing mouse catchers Evie and Ozzie to the Cabinet Office. One of her colleagues explains that her success lies in her adaptability: “She can be a close confidante, talk personably to officials, then switch instantly to bawl out a [special adviser].” Andrew Mitchell, a former Tory cabinet minister, praises her character and company: “Having known her for a while, she is someone of unimpeachable integrity.”

Whereas Gray’s previous investigations were reportable to the prime minister, the consequences of this inquiry will be in the court of public opinion — particularly if she finds it impossible to reconcile Johnson’s accounts of the May 2020 party with what others say.

Constitutionally, it is a delicate moment. Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government think-tank, argues that it was a mistake to hand this inquiry to Gray and the civil service because of the gravity of its findings. “The problem is that it has morphed into a public inquiry,” she says. “We are expecting her personal judgment on what happened with the parties. MPs are waiting on that to make their judgment to decide whether the prime minister should stay.”

Some aspects of the report are more predictable: Gray is expected to criticise a drinking culture in Downing Street and deep management failures in the civil service. But attention is chiefly focused on what she has to say about Johnson. Those working with Gray on the inquiry say she is “acutely aware” of the balancing act: go too easy on the prime minister and she will be accused of a whitewash; go too hard and the civil service may be accused by some of removing a democratically elected prime minister.

Every word of her investigation will be studied closely. The mood in Downing Street is increasingly dark, with one senior Conservative claiming: “Boris is really worried about Sue.” As Steve Baker, an influential Tory MP, suggested this week, it may be “checkmate”. The prime minister cannot expect special treatment, adds one former cabinet minister: “I know Boris will represent everything she doesn’t like.”

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