When Starmer met Sue… inside story of how civil servant was won over

Boris Johnson holds press conference for the Sue Gray report

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Ms Gray knows more about ministers, government policy and plans, the inner workings of departments, the rows and ethical concerns as well as the security issues than even the Prime Minister. No secret is safe. This is what makes her appointment by Sir Keir Starmer as his chief of staff a masterstroke and losing her an appalling blunder by Rishi Sunak.

After the revelation that the Labour leader was to appoint Ms Gray as his chief of staff broke yesterday, the conspiracy theories about her role in Boris Johnson’s downfall exploded.

Jacob Rees-Mogg demanded an inquiry into her inquiry into Mr Johnson, others like Bring Back Boris petition backer Lord Cruddas and Dudley North MP Marco Longhi claimed that it had been a stitch-up all long.

Another Tory source said: “This just shows the arrogance of the blob (the insult for the Whitehall civil servants). Whitehall is riddled with Labour supporting lefties who have been desperate to bring the government down.

“Now she [Sue Gray] feels that she can just walk over to Labour taking all her secrets to them.”

There had already been concerns about how public servants appeared to treat Starmer to Mr Johnson or any Tory MP when it came to alleged misdemeanours.

Why was Mr Johnson fined for having a piece of cake ahead of a meeting before his birthday but Starmer got no punishment for having a beer and curry party in Durham where he could not even accurately remember who was there?

Why did MP Andrew Bridgen get suspended for forgetting to mention items he had declared on his register of interests in eight emails, but Starmer got off Scot-free for failing to declare eight declarations of interest on his register?

There were certainly conspiracy theories for months for those who wanted to see them.

But while Ms Gray’s move to be Starmer’s chief of staff fits into that way of thinking, the truth is perhaps more prosaic about a woman who was not part of the Whitehall civil service Oxbridge club whose ambition had been thwarted.

According to well-placed sources, the tale began with Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle on February 7 when, among other moves, he promoted Kemi Badenoch by increasing her international trade portfolio to include business.

Ms Badenoch is understood to have immediately asked for Ms Gray to be her department’s top civil servant – the Permanent Secretary – having worked with her before in the levelling up and communities department.

A Tory MP in the know explained: “Michael Gove, who rates Sue very highly, had brought her to the levelling up department and Kemi had been impressed.

“When Kemi got a new department, Michael encouraged her to ask for Sue as her permanent secretary and she was only too keen to do so.”

But it appears that the most senior civil servant in the Government Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had other plans.

According to sources he is alleged to have got involved in the recruitment process and vetoed Ms Gray’s candidacy on a technicality because she was “not of the right grade to be promoted to permanent secretary”.

The impact of this was devastating.

One source noted: “It in effect put an end to her career chances because it meant she would never be promoted to a permanent secretary job and never have a chance to become Cabinet Secretary. A lot of ministers wanted her to land the top job one day.”

It is understood she was “upset and frustrated” and soon after Starmer approached her.

A source said: “Everybody knew what had happened and Starmer must have got to hear about it too so he swooped. It’s actually a masterstroke by him.”

A Conservative former minister was furious with Sunak.

“The Prime Minister should have intervened and overruled Case. This is a terrible blunder on his part and none of it would have happened if Kemi had been allowed to have her way.”

But why might Case have blocked her, if he did at all?

There is some speculation that Case and Gray may have fallen out years ago when he was junior to her in the Cabinet Office.

Another source noted that “there is a lot of snobbery about Sue.”

Gray is a former pub landlady, her husband is a country and western singer and she came through the civil service ranks not the Oxbridge fast track set.

Also, her report on Partygate was not at all damning of Boris Johnson but was very critical of her fellow civil servants.

“It could be that there was some pay back,” a senior MP suggested.

But this now explains why she would make the surprise move to Labour and risk the anger of those who want to link it to a conspiracy theory against Boris Johnson.

One source noted: “Sue is not stupid at all. Like all of us she can see the polls and the likelihood of a Labour Government. This is not ideological, it is a power play.

“If she goes in as Starmer’s chief of staff when he becomes Prime Minister then she can rule the roost and effectively rank above the Cabinet Secretary.

“She will get what she wants and probably ultimately a seat in the Lords.”

Another Conservative former minister said: “Sue is not an obvious lefty. She is certainly not woke. This feels more like a pragmatic decision on her part.”

But what is in it for Starmer?

As noted before, Sue Gray knows everything.

She has spent time in Ireland with security issues, in the Cabinet Office she knows all the plans and intricacies of government policies, all the rows between ministers and departments and as the person in charge of propriety and ethics she knows all the issues about individual ministers.

As one former minister noted: “Starmer is getting someone with a wealth of inside knowledge beyond his wildest dreams.”

More than that though she knows how to manipulate and run the civil service blob.

Former ministers say that even back in 2010 when the coalition government began she was the civil servant they needed to talk to get things done.

Former Lib Dem education minister David Laws joked in his book that when he came into office, he “found it was run by a woman called Sue Gray.”

If a minister needed a new office, a new special advisor, furniture, or to make any changes to the department or brief, then Sue Gray was the one who had to be asked or persuaded.

“You won’t get that past Sue Gray was a regular refrain from my private secretary,” one former minister told Express.co.uk.

But what about Boris?

By all accounts Ms Gray was described as “Boris’s woman” in the civil service.

“They were mates,” one former minister claims.

And indeed her report into Partygate did not provide anything damning about him.

But because Starmer has appointed her it has now tainted the entire investigation against Mr Johnson.

“This is great news for Boris, they cannot push ahead with the inquiry,” one Tory MP claimed.

Another source said: “The optics of it look terrible for Starmer and Gray.”

That may be the case but if Starmer is preparing for power he could not have hoped to have made a better appointment.

It was certainly worth a few bad headlines.

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