While David Cameron arrived at Downing Street for the first time in 2010, the waiting officials fouled over the new prime minister and his plans. But one voice said, “I’m sorry PM, but you can not do that.” When Chancellor George Osborne asked who it was, someone replied, “Sue Gray.”
In the shadowy world of Whitehall, where most top government officials operate anonymously, the 65-year-old stands out as a member of the permanent British state who is not afraid to hold the most senior politicians accountable.
Boris Johnson turn to Gray last month to investigate allegations about a series of parties disregarding Covid restrictions – including two held in the Downing Street garden the prime minister attended.
After Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was forced to withdraw even following reports of a festive gathering held outside his own office, Gray was seen by No10 as a clear and inviolable alternative.
Sir Oliver Letwin, former cabinet minister, wrote in his memoirs that her influence in Whitehall had matched that of the prime minister over the course of her career.
“It took me exactly two years before I realized who is running Britain. Our great UK is actually run entirely by a lady named Sue Gray, the head of ethics or something in the Cabinet Office. “Unless she agrees, things just don’t happen,” he wrote.
Details of Grey’s background are limited. Early in her civil service career, she held roles in transportation, health and the Department of Labor and Pensions, before taking a break in the late 1980s to open a bar with her husband Bill, a country and western singer. Newry, Northern Ireland. .
She is currently a permanent secretary at the Department of Equality, but her formidable reputation in Westminster stems from her years as Director-General of Properness and Ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018.
During that time, she was referred to by the BBC as “the most powerful person you have ever heard” as the former Prime Minister Lord Jeremy Heywood, who described her as “user-friendly”, a voice ministers liked to hear.
In this role, her duties ranged from deciding whether MPs had broken codes of ethics, to signing the release of ministers’ memoirs, to determining payment for special advisers.
Westminster is littered with big scalps she has taken – including that of former deputy prime minister Damian Green who was forced to quit after Gray’s investigations. She also had a hand in the resignations of Andrew Mitchell, former chief whip, and Liam Fox, former defense secretary.
Dave Penman, head of the FDA trade union representing senior civil servants, described Gray as “the classic example of the civil servant who, if you could cut it in half, would have the words’ integrity ‘and’ impartiality ‘through her like’ a stick rock ”.
However, her critics argue that there is little transparency about her decisions and question what exactly her role as Whitehall’s go-to arbitrator entails. One former special adviser said: “Sue has broken down and made careers, but it is never clear exactly who she is responsible for. She is the ultimate embodiment of the deep state. ”
Officials with knowledge of the closing party investigation noted that Gray is well aware of the political consequences that could play a crucial role in ending Johnson’s career. “She has to tread very carefully, even by her standards,” one said.
Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute of Government Thinking, said Gray would probably be wary of blaming individuals for the parties, whether they be senior government officials or politicians.
“As far as possible she will stick to the facts. The consequences of her report may be very serious, but it will not come in Sue Gray’s voice. “But she will have to give an indication of who went and the figures,” she said.
“If there are allegations that politicians are present, she will have to take a stand on it.”
While she has reported to the prime minister with previous inquiries, this investigation is less clear as it involves Johnson personally. The findings will be sent to number 10 and are expected to be made public in some form thereafter.
But any political consequences are likely to be decided outside the government if ministers and Tories MPs lose confidence in the prime minister.
Penman said Gray would not shy away from involving Johnson if she deemed it necessary. “She will come to the truth without fear or favor and lay it at the door of the prime minister whether he likes it or not, as she has done many times in her career.”
Some Tories urged Gray on Tuesday to speed up her investigation following the leaks about a May 20, 2020 party and growing anger over Johnson’s involvement. “She must accelerate, it must be done by tonight, tomorrow or the end of the week. “It is unsustainable for her to sit on it for a week,” said one MP.
But those in Whitehall close to her investigation said she would take as long as needed. “The pressure is increasing, but she has been here before. Sue will do it thoroughly and do it right. ”