Rarely has a political appointment caused such uproar. Keir Starmer must surely have known what he was doing, but still he might be surprised by the extremity of the reaction: by appointing Sue Gray as his chief of staff, the top civil servant who investigated lockdown gatherings in Downing Street, Starmer has won numerous plaudits in some quarters yet opened the door to accusations of a stitch-up in others.
It is important to set out the facts first: the wall between civil service and Government has always been porous, and Starmer follows the footsteps of Cameron and Blair by plucking someone from the civil service to head up his team. Rationally, the appointment of Gray makes sense: when parties have been out of Government as long as Labour has, its supply of staff with a deep understanding of the machinery of government will naturally decline. Gray is as well placed to remedy this as anyone, as is Tom Scholar, the former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury also linked to a job with Labour.
In 1995 Tony Blair hired Jonathan Powell, who immediately became a key figure in his “kitchen cabinet”. Powell was an influential figure in Labour policy making for the next fifteen years, but perhaps even more crucially, he had a more comprehensive grasp of how to work with the civil service than any senior Labour figure at the time. It is this second role which Gray can play as Labour looks to transition into government once again. Senior Labour figures will have hoped that the optics are positive: a high profile hire, someone indelibly linked with law, order and fairness, another example of a serious individual reaching the conclusion that Labour is a serious party.
If Labour did breach any technical boundaries in their tapping up of Gray, they run two very real risks. On one hand there is the concession of much of the reputational goodwill they accrued throughout Partygate by positioning themselves as the party of decency and lawfulness. Less likely but more extreme is the possibility of the hire backfiring: either an attempt to block it by Sunak, rejected or significantly delayed by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, or worst of all, Starmer or Gray forced into an embarrassing U-turn. In the immediate term, Gray’s appointment might have overshadowed Labour’s work this week to launch their commitment to delivering growth through infrastructure reform and housebuilding.
Yet while this hire might blur the lines, Starmer can reject out of hand the accusation that the appointment calls civil service impartiality into question. Questions can reasonably be asked as to whether Gray’s move passes the smell test, but the likes of Nadine Dorries telling the Mail that this proves a “deep-laid plot” to oust Boris Johnson is one step towards conspiracy theorism too far. People in all kinds of roles, not least public affairs, are required to put their own views to one side each day. It is naive to expect that professionally impartial people are impartial deep down: every civil servant is entitled to a vote. Yet to assume that civil servants moving from an impartial role to a political one is only evidence of some deep-state level corruption if you believe that senior civil servants are incapable of operating neutrally while having their own views.
People – particularly senior civil servants – are capable of shelving their views when called upon to do so. There is no expectation on them not to hold and express these views before they join the civil service, and – as it stands – no rule against them going into political roles once they leave, providing all due diligence is undergone. Labour may have made an optical misstep if the public decides that hiring Sue Gray is a purely cynical move, but that may even have been baked in all along. Ironically, Labour may finally have learnt the trick that served Boris Johnson so well: do what’s best for you, and what will prove most useful, and trust that the noise will inevitably subside. As one Labour aide is quoted as saying today – Starmer “will have honestly just picked who he thought would be best for the job.”