The former civil servant ‘chose not to make representations’ to the Cabinet Office investigation, Oliver Dowden has told MPs
Former Whitehall ethics chief Sue Gray has sparked Conservative anger by refusing to speak to officials investigating her move to a top job with Labour.
Ministers believe that the senior civil servant broke the terms of her contract by opening talks with Sir Keir Starmer’s team about becoming his chief of staff while still employed by the Government.
An investigation was opened two months ago into whether she had violated Whitehall rules which state that mandarins must report any contact they have with political leaders and be open about potential conflicts of interest.
The probe was widely expected to conclude that Ms Gray had breached the rules. But in a tersely worded statement on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, said only that she “was given the opportunity to make representations as part of this process but chose not to do so”.
He did not say whether the Cabinet Office deemed her to have broken rules, but said a “further update” would be provided at a later date.
Cabinet Office investigators were unable to reach a firm conclusion because Ms Gray had “refused to co-operate”, i has been told, and decided against publishing further information because of legal protections on her right to confidentiality.
But one senior Government source said it was “unthinkable” that she would have resigned from her post as second permanent secretary in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities without having previously agreed with Labour that she would take up the chief of staff job, which was announced on the same day as her departure. “There is no precedent for this whatsoever,” the source added.
Results of the Cabinet Office probe have been submitted to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which will in due course recommend how long Ms Gray must wait before starting her new role. The investigation, which is likely to be published after the Acoba decision, “raises more questions than it answers” according to a No 10 insider.
Sir Keir previously promised that his new chief of staff would explain the full circumstances of her dealings with Labour. Asked when Ms Gray first spoke to his party, the Leader of the Opposition told LBC in March: “That’s going to be laid out by Sue, she’s got to do that as part of her leaving procedure.”
A Labour source said on Tuesday night: “Sue Gray has fully co-operated with the Acoba process and is awaiting their outcome. They are the designated channel in cases like this.”
A Tory source said: “Starmer said she’d set out her dates as part of leaving procedure. She hasn’t. He hasn’t done what he said she would.”
Ms Gray spent years as head of the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team and led a number of high-profile internal investigations, including several which sparked the resignation of Cabinet ministers. She shot to public fame as the head of the Partygate probe which found that Boris Johnson and his officials had broken Covid-19 rules by holding social gatherings in Downing Street.
Allies of the former prime minister hit out at her refusal to give evidence to the inquiry into her own conduct. Jacob Rees-Mogg told i: “It is puzzling, Sue has decided to sabotage her own reputation. As I worked with her a little, I think it is as sad as it is improper.”
Michael Fabricant, the MP for Lichfield, added: “Hypocrisy has become a by-word when it comes to Sue Gray while Keir Starmer’s silence on this matter is deafening. This is causing a grave sense of unease with the body politic and Labour’s refusal to take ownership over this sordid affair.” A Whitehall source said: “She would have gone tonto against someone who refused to comply with one of her investigations.”
Workington MP Mark Jenkinson tweeted: “When Sue Gray was in the propriety and ethics team, how might she have reacted to someone who failed to comply with her investigations? What might she have said about ‘Partygate’ witnesses if they’d declined her offer of a chat?”
Labour officials have previously accused the Government of deliberately timing the release of the statement on Ms Gray in order to stir up the issue ahead of the local elections.
She was defended by Dave Penman of the FDA union, who told Times Radio: “Sue has a right not to take part in an investigation that’s being conducted under, I think, rather less clear processes. Really what she’s concentrating on is Acoba and supplying them with information… Acoba is really the real deal when it comes to this and who’s going to make a decision.”
Acoba does not have the power to block jobs taken by senior civil servants or ministers after they leave Government, but it can recommend a pause of up to two years before they take up their new appointment.
Supporters of Ms Gray have pointed to precedents such as the cases of Ed Llewellyn and Dan Rosenfield, who both became chief of staff in a Conservative government after working in the Civil Service, although neither was as senior or as high-profile as the former ethics chief.
Jonathan Powell, who moved from the Foreign Office to work for Tony Blair in the 1990s, said: “Anyone who applies for a new job knows you have to talk to the people you’re going to get the job at before you actually take the job. That seems to me self-evident. So that’s what I did.
“No-one actually made any fuss about me switching from the British Foreign Office into the role of chief of staff to the leader of the opposition.”
He added: “This ministerial statement sounds much more like it’s a political game by the Government trying to play politics with this rather than anything serious.”
Sir Keir Starmer has insisted that Ms Gray did not break any rules by agreeing to join Labour as his chief of staff.
Sir Keir said that he “had no discussions with her while she was investigating Boris Johnson whatsoever, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that’s the case”.
He told BBC Breakfast: “I’m confident she hasn’t broken any of the rules.”
Sir Keir added: “The Government is trying to resurrect a story about Sue Gray, maybe because they don’t want to talk about the cost of living crisis, which actually is the thing that most people are most concerned about.”
A Labour source stressed Ms Gray played no role in an ongoing inquiry into whether Boris Johnson lied to Parliament, adding: “The propriety and ethics team handled requests from the Privileges Committee, reporting to minister for Cabinet Office, Jeremy Quin.
“Sue Gray was not working in that team.”
Senior Conservative allies of Mr Johnson have previously claimed that her jump from Whitehall to the Opposition called the Civil Service’s neutrality into question.
Sir Keir is thought to want Ms Gray in place to help ready his party for power should he win the next general election, which is widely expected to be held next year.
As well as a Cabinet Office probe, the anti-corruption watchdog, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), is also reviewing the terms of Ms Gray’s departure and new job offer.
It can set recommendations for when senior people leave government, including calling for a cooling-off period to avoid any conflict of interest.
The Civil Service code stipulates that officials of Ms Gray’s seniority must wait a minimum of three months before taking up outside employment.
But Acoba could recommend that it is a longer wait, with a maximum delay of up to two years.