Labour denies claim Sue Gray in talks about job with Starmer ‘for over a year’
Labour has denied claims that top civil servant Sue Gray was involved in talks about taking a job as Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff for more than a year before she was formally offered the role.
The move to appoint the official, who oversaw the Partygate inquiry into events that took place while Boris Johnson was in No 10, has sparked outrage among Tory allies of the former prime minister, who cried stitch-up.
Labour has insisted that Ms Gray was approached after a vacancy arose in the autumn – long after she had completed her May 2022 Partygate report.
But Cabinet Office officials believe that discussions between the party and Ms Gray may have been going on for more than a year, according to The Mail on Sunday.
A government source told the paper: “One of Sue Gray’s managers has told Cabinet Office officials that they believe secret contacts with Labour began well before last November [and] may have been going on for over 12 months. It all appears to have been done ‘off the books’.”
But a spokesperson for Sir Keir categorically denied that Ms Gray had been in talks with the party for that long. The spokesperson said: “As is well documented, and Keir has said, the chief of staff vacancy only arose in autumn 2022.”
Labour said previously that Sir Keir was “delighted” that Ms Gray was hoping to join the Labour team, after the news that she had left her top Whitehall job was revealed earlier this month.
The Cabinet Office is “reviewing the circumstances” under which Ms Gray resigned, as she also waits to hear from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments – the watchdog that scrutinises roles taken by ex-ministers and top civil servants – on the suitability of her new position.
Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Johnson allies said that Ms Gray’s Partygate report now appears to have been “a left-wing stitch-up against a Tory prime minister”, and expressed concerns over whether it could have influenced the privileges committee investigation into Mr Johnson’s statements in the Commons.
Labour sources said Ms Gray had had no dealings with MPs on the cross-party committee – who gathered evidence independently – while in talks about the chief-of-staff role.
The Mail reports that Ms Gray wrote to committee chair Harriet Harman to say that the identity of some No 10 officials who provided evidence should remain confidential.
The row comes as Michael Gove said he believed the defence Mr Johnson put forward at the Partygate hearing. Asked on BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg whether he accepted the former prime minister’s evidence, he said: “Yes, I did.”
Grilled on whether Mr Johnson had always told the truth, the levelling up secretary replied: “I think that all of us will at some point have told a white lie or an untruth. But I think the fundamental thing here ... what was Boris’s argument? He was working incredibly hard [during Covid], every hour that the lord sent, in order to try and do the right thing.”
He added: “I am inclined to give him not just the benefit of the doubt, but to believe that when he places his hand on his heart and says he did not think he was breaking the rules, I do believe him.”
Commenting on Mr Johnson’s political future and his appearance in front of the privileges committee, former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith told GB News: “I didn’t really watch it very much, because I was busy doing other things. I never write anybody off, and I’d certainly not write Boris off.”
Meanwhile, Leave.EU co-founder Arron Banks – the so-called “bad boy of Brexit” – is said to have held talks with a leading ally of Mr Johnson, Peter Cruddas.
They met to discuss Lord Cruddas’s Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO), a group aimed at handing more power to the Tory grassroots, according to The Sunday Times.
Lawyers acting for the Tory peer – whose organisation launched on the back of an unsuccessful “Bring back Boris” campaign – said the pair had met for lunch and drinks but that the work of the CDO was “only discussed in passing”.