There is only one phrase on the lips of government ministers sent out to defend their beleaguered leader at the moment: “We are waiting for Sue Gray’s report.”
The senior civil servant once nicknamed “deputy god” for her power around Whitehall has become the arbiter of Downing Street, tasked with investigating the ever-growing list of parties reported to have been held under lockdown restrictions.
Currently the Second Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office with responsibility for the Union and the constitution, Gray joined the civil service as a school-leaver and quickly gained experience with postings in transport, the Department for Work and Pensions and, recently, a senior position in the Northern Ireland Executive. But it was her role at the Cabinet Office as director-general, propriety and ethics from 2012 to 2018 that honed her investigating skills. She led several high-profile investigations and was involved in the resignations of three cabinet ministers.
One of her investigations forced Damian Green – Theresa May’s deputy at the time – to resign in 2017 after it was found he made “inaccurate” statements about pornography found on his office computer. Gray also investigated claims of sexual misconduct by Green against the journalist Kate Maltby, finding that while she could not reach a definitive conclusion, Maltby’s accusations were “plausible”. Maltby today paid tribute to Gray’s ability to “stand up purely for what is morally right”, predicting that “Gray will doggedly pursue the facts, wherever they lead her”.
Yet despite her reputation for scrupulous investigations that result in ministerial resignations, we must not overstate Gray’s power to hold Johnson and the Downing Street staff to account over the never-ending party revelations. First, hers is not a properly independent investigation. As a civil servant, Gray ultimately reports to the head of the civil service Simon Case, and to the Prime Minister. Case was originally leading the investigation into one of the alleged Christmas parties but recused himself after reports that another such event was held in his office, while Gray will present her report to Johnson, the person she is investigating, who also happens to be her boss. Indeed, one former senior government source told me that Gray sees herself as a “custodian of the system” who would be wary of bringing down a PM.
Second, Gray is a civil servant, not a judge. She cannot rule on whether Johnson and his Downing Street revellers broke the law. Her remit is to establish the facts. According to No 10, the purpose of her investigation is to “establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose”. While Gray can make “reference to adherence to the [government’s] guidance” on Covid, “matters relating to adherence to the law are properly for the police to investigate”.
Except, the Metropolitan Police have taken to extremes the quip allegedly made by Tory minister Oliver Letwin to David Laws, his Liberal Democrat colleague in the coalition government, that “unless [Sue Gray] agrees, things just don’t happen”. The police force has said it will not investigate the Downing Street Parties unless Gray’s investigation finds evidence of criminality. A reminder: the police have issued over 80,000 fixed-penalty notices for gatherings that broke lockdown rules created by those inside No 10.
Alongside her record investigating rogue ministers, Gray appears to have prior experience handling careless drinkers. In the late 1980s, she ran a pub in Northern Ireland called the Cove Bar with her husband, the country singer Bill Conlon. Frequented by both Protestants and Catholics, the pub was located in a region dubbed “Bandit Country”. One regular said he didn’t “remember any hassle” and that Gray was a “good landlady”.
As a publican Gray prevented any hassle for her patrons. The question now is how much hassle she sees fit to cause the Prime Minister.