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In the 1980s, Sue Gray briefly paused her stellar civil service career to buy a pub in “bandit country” in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. If Boris Johnson needed evidence that his inquisitor-in-chief is no pushover, then being landlady of a pub in Newry close to the Irish border shows she is no soft touch.
Ms Gray has the task of investigating a series of alleged lockdown parties held in Downing Street and across government during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Prime Minister has been questioned by Ms Gray over the “Partygate” allegations he and other MPs face and The Telegraph understands that he has shared all he knows with the civil servant.
Dominic Cummings is also being interviewed by Ms Gray as part of her investigation. Mr Johnson’s former top aide, who has been critical of the Prime Minister since leaving No10, has previously claimed on his blog that he and other witnesses were prepared to swear under oath that Mr Johnson had “lied to Parliament about parties”.
Ahead of the report being published as early as next week, Downing Street is already planning its response – with a promise to clean up the culture of drinking and rule-breaking it seems to have adopted, as well as the potential sacking of senior members.
Ominously for the Prime Minister, an MP once described her as “deputy god”, while Sir Oliver Letwin admitted when in Cabinet that it had taken him “precisely two years before I realised who it is that runs Britain”, adding: “Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray. Nothing moves in Whitehall unless Sue says so.”
She does not suffer fools. For six years, she was director-general, propriety and ethics, in the Cabinet Office.
She ran inquiries into “plebgate” – in which Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip, was accused of calling a police officer a “pleb” – and into allegations that Damian Green had used his parliamentary computer to access pornography. Mr Green, then deputy prime minister, was forced to resign.
Now aged 63, Ms Gray has held senior civil service posts under a number of prime ministers, both Labour and Conservative, and has pulled off the trick of keeping politicians in the dark about her own political leanings.
She remains on friendly terms with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications and strategy, and the pair remain in touch.
“She is a very, very strong woman,” Mr Campbell said on January 11. “She really cares about what goes on in Government. I would not have a clue about her politics … but she is somebody whose judgement I have valued.”
In one volume of Mr Campbell’s diary, he references a number of meetings with her after leaving Downing Street – not least because one of Ms Gray’s chief roles was to vet political memoirs, to ensure no state secrets were given away or civil servants unfairly maligned.
In June 2009, Mr Campbell wrote of a lunch with Ms Gray at which she urged him to stand as a Labour candidate in time for the 2010 General Election that Gordon Brown lost.
“To my surprise [she] felt really strongly I should go for Burnley,” wrote Mr Campbell. “She felt they [Labour] were badly in need of direction and none of the people at the top at the moment could give it.”
At the lunch, Ms Gray, according to the Campbell diaries, “was full of stories of how dysfunctional it all was” in reference to the Brown administration. For a civil servant, she seems surprisingly candid. On the subject of Ed Miliband, she told Mr Campbell that she liked him “personally but felt he was weak”.
Public servant in a public house
Ms Gray and her husband, Bill Conlon, an acclaimed country and western singer, bought a pub, with family connections, called The Cove in the late 1980s. They ran it for a number of years before she returned to the Civil Service, working across Whitehall in transport, health and work and pensions, before joining the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s.
She served in Northern Ireland as permanent secretary in Stormont’s department of finance, but was passed over for the top job of head of the Northern Ireland civil service in 2020.
In a rare interview, she told the BBC that she had “really wanted the job” but felt she had been passed over because “people may have thought that I perhaps was too much of a challenger, or a disruptor”.
She returned to the Cabinet Office last May to take up the post of second permanent secretary with the responsibility for the Union and Constitution.
Friends call her a “straight shooter” who will leave no stone unturned in getting to the truth about the various parties – Downing Street calls them “gatherings” – but will also investigate the “culture” inside Number 10 that allowed them to occur in the first place.
They point out the irony that had she been in the Cabinet Office at the time of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms Gray would have put a stop to any parties once she had wind of them.
Now she is back – and Boris Johnson should be afraid, very afraid.