Thoughts on Sue Gray

When former Cabinet Secretaries become peers they traditionally join the cross-benches, rather than any party.

For a senior figure such as Sue Gray to move straight to such a political role is deeply damaging for trust in civil service impartiality.

Yesterday, my Tweet about the senior civil servant Sue Gray leaving to become Keir Starmer’s chief of staff unexpectedly went viral. Here are some further thoughts.

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For those not familiar with the background, Sue Gray is the Second Permanent Secretary (second most senior civil servant) in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. She is best known for heading the ‘Partygate’ investigation into the lockdown parties and other gatherings in Downing Street. Prior to her current role, she has held a number of senior roles in the civil service, including a lengthy stint as Director General for Propriety and Ethics, where she made rulings on matters related to propriety for civil servants, ministers and advisers across a number of years.

Yesterday it was announced that she had resigned abruptly to become Chief of Staff to Keir Starmer.

Why does this matter? Well, unlike in many countries, where an incoming government appoints large numbers of senior officials of its own political persuasion, we have a permanent civil service. Civil servants, including the most senior – Permanent Secretaries, the ‘Sir Humphrey’ role in Yes Minister – remain and serve the government of the day, whether that is Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or anything else. Underlying this is the requirement for civil servants to be politically impartial(1), to give no doubt to the government that they will serve them honestly, objectively and impartially to the best of their ability.

Of course, we do have some political appointees. Special Advisers (SpAds) are appointed, but they are few in number (typically 2-3 per department) and cannot line manage civil servants or authorise public spending. A small number of public appointments – heads of arm’s length bodies (‘quangos’) – go to people with a political affiliation. Last year 7% of new public appointees declared a political affiliation; of those, 42% were Conservative, 31% Labour, 17% Lib Dem and 10% other. So, not many.

Traditionally, the most senior civil servants worked hard to retain their reputation for impartiality, both in government and afterwards. Cabinet Secretaries(2), upon retiring, have usually been granted a peerage. They have traditionally chosen to sit on the cross-benches, with the other independent experts and specialists, rather than affiliating with any political party. I’m fairly sure that some of these Cabinet Secretaries have, at a personal level, supported one party over another, but they were careful not to demonstrate that in public.

Ex-Permanent Secretaries, similarly, have tended not to show political affiliation. Since 2016 there has been some discussion in the media about how a number of former Permanent Secretaries have been vocal in their opposition to Brexit. This has done some damage to the perception of the civil service – building upon the fact that it is true that most senior civil servants did support Remain – but it has been limited. Firstly, Brexit is genuinely a once in 50 year, constitutional, nation-determining factor; and secondly, they have still (usually) not demonstrated party-affiliation.

For a Permanent Secretary to resign in post to become the Opposition Leader’s chief of staff is, in modern times, absolutely unprecedented. For it to be the individual who, less than a year before, published a report that helped to bring down a Prime Minister – and who had herself, for years, been head of the Propriety and Ethics team – adds insult to injury.

I should be absolutely explicit: I am not accusing Sue Gray of having acted improperly in post, or in her carrying out of the Partygate investigation. There is no evidence that we are currently aware of to support this suggestion. Nor is any there evidence to suggest that she will misuse the confidential information that she undoubtedly has. But, like Caesar’s Wife, top civil servants must be above suspicion. Their ability to be trusted by politicians of all parties – their ability to be trusted with highly sensitive inquiries into national scandals, sitting Cabinet Ministers or even the Prime Minister – relies on them being, and being perceived to be, utterly impartial. This reputation has just taken a major hit.

I feel sorry today for the many civil servants I know, utterly committed to impartiality, who will see how this damages the service of which they are rightly proud. Every incoming government, whether Labour or Conservative, has its suspicions of the civil service. These are usually rapidly overcome. More recently, the highly polarising nature of Brexit has placed further strain on the relations, as have some unfortunate ongoing rows regarding, for example, officials at the Home Office who seem unwilling to serve the government of the day. I believe there are some problems: the apparent creation of a corpus separatum, mainly but not exclusively on equality issues, where the civil service has attempted to declare some things as ‘not political‘, including for example by formally affiliating departments with lobby groups actively campaigining against the Government’s policies; a very small minority of activist civil servants who push these agenda; and the unfortunate trend of permitting civil servants to demonstrate their affiliation with political causes using their email signatures. But these matters aside, the vast majority of civil servants I worked with, as both a civil servant and as a SpAd, were genuinely committed to impartiality. They cared deeply about it, exemplified it and lived it. I find it genuinely hard to imagine most of the Permanent Secretaries I’ve worked with doing something like Sue Gray has done, precisely because they know how damaging it would be to the organisation they’ve given their lives to.

But hang on a minute, I hear you ask, didn’t you used to be a civil servant, and you’re now political? That’s right, I was, but there are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly and most importantly, I was enormously more junior than Sue Gray – three grades below. Designing the TEF is not equivalent to writing a report, with the eyes of the nation upon you, into wrong-doing and potential law-breaking by the Prime Minister and other top officials and advisers. I managed a team of 30 people, not a department of thousands. I didn’t rule on the propriety and ethics of ministers, advisers and civil servants. And when I left, firstly, I went to the private sector initially, and secondly, when I came back as a SpAd, it was in a specialist role, not chief of staff to the PM or Leader of the Opposition.

More broadly, this happens. Sometimes junior and mid-level civil servants decide they want to be political – sometimes to the Conservatives, sometimes to Labour. I worked with a junior press officer who was also a Labour councillor – not a problem. Knowing that I wanted to be political, I rightly left well before I reached anywhere near the levels of seniority, responsibility and access to confidential information enjoyed by Sue Gray. Others do the same.

What about David Frost and Jonathan Powell though, you may ask, both senior diplomats who then became, respectively, Boris Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator and Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff? Isn’t this comparable? It’s a fairer challenge, but I don’t think they are comparable. Firstly, both Frost and Powell, though more senior than me, were still significantly more junior than Gray. Secondly, and more importantly, they had been serving their country abroad, in the Diplomatic Service. Military officers similarly also sometimes go on to become elected MPs. Serving one’s country in the Diplomatic Service is vastly different to carrying out investigations, and adjudicating upon, the behaviour of senior politicians, up to and including the Prime Minister.

At the end of the day, this is good for Labour – Gray is meant to be highly effective and having a competent chief of staff makes a big difference. It’s probably good for the country – if Starmer wins, competent government is better than incompetent government. And it’s no doubt good for Gray herself. But it’s bad for the civil service.

I have already seen significant numbers of Conservative MPs being highly critical of the move. Trust between MPs and the civil service, battered by Brexit, tested by the increasing polarisation of politics around education, has just taken another serious knock. Rightly or wrongly, this will strengthen the hand of all those arguing that the civil service cannot be trusted to deliver a Conservative agenda, and that a US-style system of direct political appointees should be brought in. Perhaps Gray thinks this doesn’t matter, for Labour will win the next election – but no party stays in power for ever.

I have a tremendous affection for the Civil Service of Northcote and Trevelyan, founded upon honesty, objectivity, integrity and impartiality. It is an institution that has served this country well for over 150 years. Yet it is becoming increasingly hard to defend.

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(1) Some more junior civil servants can take part in political activity.

(2) The Cabinet Secretary is the overall head of the Civil Service, more senior than the Permanent Secretaries who each head a department.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Sue Gray

  1. Ian,

    I agree with your main point. I wish she had not done it. In these polarized times it would always become an issue. Poor choice all around. But I disagree while the framing of the problem and preferred solution.

    You suggest that the civil service is losing the confidence in it to deliver strongly conservative policies which gives the impression that the past 13 years have not seen very strongly conservative policies such as austerity, Brexit and the Trussonomics experiment. How did sacking the Treasury Perm Sec and sidelining traditional advice / checks and balances go work out? How many Home Office Perm secs are needed before politicians take the blame for incoherent policy / legal frameworks on immigration?

    It also overlooks the civil service holding the public / political line on the Brexit deal (no forms needed) and various procurement and personal indiscretions by far too many.

    But most of all it overlooks the reality that a great many political appointees bicker constantly for factional reasons, leak like sieves and run off to careers in the media / lobbying industry (based on insider knowledge) immediately after making a name for themselves. You would therefore end a system where a very rare person giving an impression of a problem would lead to the replacement of a great many by political appointees with a proven history of being a real and serious problem.

    The civil service needs to improve in many ways. This would make it much worse.

    1. You make some very good points. I agree on Brexit, for example: when the Cabinet was divided, Brexit floundered; once there was clear political direction, the civil service delivered. We can see the same pattern repeating again on the Northern Ireland protocol and the recent deal.

      I think there is more of a case to answer than you. The Home Office is less strong a case (some of the leaks that have come out on civil service views are not good); similarly, it was always very predictable which policies the civil service would eagerly implement and which would take repeated instructions and repeated push-back. The polarisation of our society by education levels makes this innately harder to manage than 2-3 decades ago.

      I have a lot of sympathy for your view that a political solution would make things worse. I don’t think the difference in views is more unmanageable than, e.g., when Labour was in power in the 1940s or ’60s and I’d hope it could be resolved with the current model retained. But actions like this strengthen the arguments for change.

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