Furious Tories have claimed the partygate investigation was a “left-wing stitch-up” after the civil servant leading the probe joined Labour leader Keir Starmer’s office.
Sue Gray, who investigated law-breaking parties held in Downing Street during Boris Johnson’s leadership, has been appointed Starmer’s chief of staff, it was announced on Thursday.
The circumstances of her resignation as second permanent secretary in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – accepted with “immediate effect” on Thursday – will be reviewed.
The move prompted anger among allies of Johnson. One “friend” of the former-PM claimed the validity and findings of Gray’s partygate report had been “completely destroyed”.
“Keir Starmer appointing Sue Gray as his chief of staff reveals what many have suspected all along: partygate was a deliberate and manufactured plot to oust a Brexit-backing Conservative prime minister,” the ally said.
But a former Tory cabinet minister told HuffPost UK: “The conspiracy theorists like (Johnson ally) Jacob Rees-Mogg will see this as evidence that Boris was framed, but that is obviously nonsense.
“He actually survived partygate but was brought down by the Chris Pincher stuff, which was entirely his own doing.”
Johnson – who was fined for lockdown rule-breaking – was forced to announce his resignation as Tory leader and PM in July after cabinet allies turned on him with a series of resignations.
The final straw was questions about his judgment over the Chris Pincher affair, after the then-Tory whip was at the centre of drunken groping allegations.
That came on top of Johnson’s attempts to change the rules to prevent the suspension of then-Conservative MP Owen Paterson after he broke lobbying edicts.
Who is Sue Gray?
Sue Gray was thrust into the limelight when she took over the probe into coronavirus rule-breaking at No 10 in 2021.
She stepped in to lead the investigation after cabinet secretary Simon Case – her boss – recused himself following allegations that his own office held a Christmas event amid a lockdown.
An initial dossier, published in January 2022, included several strong criticisms of Downing Street’s drinking culture, but was short on details about the parties as it was hampered by an investigation launched by the Metropolitan Police.
But her full report in May 2022 proved to be a bombshell. It detailed events at which officials drank so much they were sick, sang karaoke, became involved in altercations and abused security and cleaning staff at a time when millions of people across the country were unable to see friends and family.
She criticised “failures of leadership and judgment” in No 10 and said “the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility”.
Six weeks later, Johnson was forced out of office by his own cabinet and Conservative MPs.
While Gray, in her mid-60s, is said to shun the media spotlight, some politicians have gone so far as to suggest the former publican is the “real leader” of the UK.
In her former role as director-general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018, she is said to have overseen cabinet reshuffles, served as a guiding hand in compiling honours lists, and even signed off political memoirs before their publication.
Arch Johnson loyalists have expressed outrage, with Rees-Mogg saying: “So much for an impartial civil service, the Gray report now looks like a left wing stitch up against a Tory prime minister.”
Nadine Dorries, who served as Johnson’s culture secretary, described the Gray report as a “stitch up” and said the reported move to Starmer’s office was “not surprising”.
Bassetlaw MP Brendan Clarke-Smith said he was “genuinely shocked”, and accused Starmer of having “scant regard for the public image of the civil service and the damage this will do”.
“After the events of last year, people will quite understandably be questioning the appropriateness of this appointment, including issues of impartiality,” the MP added.
The Labour leader was “delighted” that the senior civil servant plans to “accept the role subject to the normal procedures”, his party said.
A Labour Party spokesman said: “The Labour Party has offered Sue Gray the role of chief of staff to the Leader of the Opposition.
“We understand she hopes to accept the role subject to the normal procedures. Keir Starmer is delighted she is hoping to join our preparations for government and our mission to build a better Britain.”
Under the civil service code, officials of Gray’s seniority must wait a minimum of three months before taking up outside employment.
The move will be scrutinised by parliament’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), before advising the prime minister on whether the move is “unsuitable”.
Rishi Sunak will make the final ruling over the rules. Acoba does not have the power to block an appointment.