Sue Gray fireworks will burn Starmer and civil service neutrality

Starmer accuses government of resurrecting ‘a story about Sue Gray’

The proverbial damp squib does not really go far enough to describe the holding statement put out by Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden which shed little light on what will happen next. But this does not mean that Ms Gray or Sir Keir Starmer are in the clear, just that the fury has been bottled up for another day.

It turns out that Starmer and Gray’s blushes were saved yesterday by a cautious Speaker – Sir Lindsay Hoyle.

With leaks about the conclusions into Starmer’s wooing of the top civil servant responsible for investigating Boris, being leaked, there were demands by a number of Tory MPs for an Urgent Question to be tabled forcing a statement from the government.

It was a statement – one suspects – the government was only too happy to make.

But Sir Lindsay was not having it.

“Too political,” he is said to have told complaining Tories pointing out that the local elections are on Thursday and Parliament is in a sort of purdah period.

One disgruntled Tory Red Waller said: “If that’s too political, everything is too political. Why are we here this week at all then?”

It might also explain why the written statement from Oliver Dowden, who heads up the Cabinet Office, said nothing at all, although he used 475 words to do it.

So, the row that was expected yesterday did not happen. But it was just delayed.

What is clear is the fury felt by Conservative MPs about what has happened and the tiptoeing around the issue by Labour MPs.

It is quite possible that what seemed like a clever move by Starmer to recruit the woman who many saw as the most able mandarin in Whitehall as his chief of staff could backfire very badly on him but also change the constitutional neutrality of the civil service.

Express.co.uk was the first to reveal that the cause of Ms Gray’s decision to join Starmer was because the top mandarin, Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, had ended her chances of becoming a permanent secretary running a department and perhaps one day replacing him.

The two do not get on and the fallout of this affair is looking more likely to cost him his job, according to well-placed sources.

But the real problem is the “utter appalling blatant hypocrisy” of Ms Gray herself, as one former minister described it.

This was no ordinary civil servant. She was the gatekeeper to the rules with the power to even effectively veto ministerial appointments.

There was an infamous case of Ms Gray telling a David Cameron appointee that he could not be a minister because a book he had written was due to be published the next day.

This was despite the book not having anything to do with his proposed brief.

Cameron accepted her ruling because she was the guardian to the rules.

A number of current and former ministers have described in detail how they needed to get her agreement on staffing, special advisors, new furniture and almost everything.

But now the guardian of the rules looks like she has broken the rules herself – a determination or announcement of it will come.

Among more veteran MPs and former ministers this more than anything was causing anger.

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Much has been made of the fact that she investigated Boris Johnson and Partygate.

Certainly, the suggestion she was in talks with Starmer while doing that about a job would really put a doubt on any conclusions drawn about the former Prime Minister.

It would also raise further questions about the integrity of Starmer himself.

One Tory MP noted that the Labour leader has had “a charmed life”, not being admonished or punished for failing to declare eight financial interests or for having a beer and curry party during lockdown in Durham.

But the real issue now is whether the civil service is actually politically neutral.

Already after the Dominic Raab affair a number of Tory MPs have claimed that the civil service is politically biased.

A number think that there is a deliberate attempt to stop Tory policies and oust Tory ministers.

Even Labour MP Graham Stringer described the idea of a politically neutral civil service as “one of the great lies”.

The result of this is that for the first time ever there is widespread discussion about whether the UK should adopt the US system of a politically appointed civil service.

“If Sue Gray and her former colleagues are not neutral then why should we pretend anymore?” asked one MP.

“We cannot allow unelected officials to get to sack ministers and stop policies of elected governments,” said another.

“It is time we exposed the blob,” added a third.

This is no longer a fringe debate and if the Conservatives pull off a miraculous election victory next year, then Rishi Sunak could find himself under pressure to change things dramatically.

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