Who is the most powerful woman in Britain? The Prime Minister? The Monarch? Or the Director General of the Propriety and Ethics Team in the Cabinet Office?
The last of these individuals, Sue Gray, operates in carefully preserved obscurity. To the wider public, her very name is unknown. Yet she is running the inquiry into the charges made against Damian Green, who is one of the Prime Minister’s oldest friends in politics, the First Secretary of State and also, as it happens, Minister for the Cabinet Office.
At the end of this important task, she will advise Theresa May whether or not Green has broken the Ministerial Code. In less bureaucratic language, Gray will decide whether the allegations against him of sexual harassment, and of having had pornography on his computer when the police searched his office in 2008 – both of which charges he has strenuously denied – amount to anything, and whether in her view he must resign.
The likelihood is that after many years’ experience of this kind of crisis, for she has been in the Cabinet Office since the late 1990s, she already has a shrewd idea what the outcome of her inquiry will be. As another Whitehall insider who has watched her in action says, “She’ll know at once whether something’s a resigning matter.”
And yet it is possible to work at the Prime Minister’s side, and still not realise for a considerable period quite how powerful Gray is. David Laws relates, in Coalition, his memoir of the 2010-15 government, a conversation over breakfast in the Number Ten canteen with Oliver Letwin, David Cameron’s policy chief, who declares that real power does not lie with the Prime Minister, or even with the Cabinet Secretary, and goes on:
“It took me precisely two years before I realised finally who it is that runs Britain. Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray, the Head of Ethics or something in the Cabinet Office.
“Unless she agrees, things just don’t happen. Cabinet reshuffles, departmental reorganisations, the whole lot – it’s all down to Sue Gray. Nothing moves in Whitehall unless Sue says so. She gets to censor our memoirs too! Our poor, deluded voters think the Prime Minister holds the reins of power. Wrong! The truth is our real leader, Sue Gray, sits at a small desk in the Cabinet Office. If only the Chinese and the Russians knew! They have probably been bugging all the wrong phones for years.”
In her official biography, Gray gives very little away, whether to the Chinese and the Russians, or to us, her fellow citizens:
“Sue joined the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s. Before joining the Cabinet Office, Sue worked in Transport, Health and DWP covering a range of roles which included both policy and front line delivery.
“She also took a career break to run a pub in Newry, Northern Ireland.”
That last statement brings one up short, but I can provide no further details. It is only fair on these occasions to leave scope for younger and fitter colleagues to uncover new material.
For present purposes, suffice it to say that Gray is indeed a key figure, whose power has extended over the last four prime ministerships and is at its greatest when things go wrong. As Gordon Brown says in his new memoir (which Gray or her team will have read, and which will be reviewed here on Saturday):
“Like Tony before me and two prime ministers since, I was able to draw on the support of Sue Gray, a senior official in the Cabinet Office, who was always there with wise advice when – as all too regularly happened – mini-crises and crises befell.”
That is all Brown says about her, for he conforms to the usual practice of mentioning her only in passing. The one extended piece about her which I have come across is by the investigative journalist Chris Cook, who is tremendously cross with her for her key role in blocking Freedom of Information requests.
As far as I can see, apart from Cook’s ground-breaking effort, no one has so much as attempted to write a profile of her. Yet so long as they can be assured of anonymity, people who have watched her in action enjoy talking about her, for they recognise her as a remarkable figure. In the words of one observer:
“She heads Whitehall’s equivalent of the Office of the Holy Inquisition. If Jeremy Heywood [the Cabinet Secretary] is the Pope she leads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. She defines what is heretical.
“A slash of scarlet lipstick and bouffant brown hair should not distract one from the truth that she is a steely enforcer of Whitehall authority. All power to the Civil Service is her modus operandi. She owes her allegiance to the permanent government and the deep state.”
It is only fair, as balance to that, to quote a tribute to her by a mandarin:
“She does a completely thankless task. I’m a great fan of hers. If politicians are incompetent at reaching a verdict about politicians’ ethical standards, someone has to do the dirty work.
“She’s always wanted to escape from that job, but for some reason she never can. Anything difficult or complicated, so it might be unpopular, Jeremy Heywood will pass to her to deal with. People blame the messenger.”
Gray is deeply involved in Civil Service appointments, and in the honours system. Another of her duties is to oversee the private offices of ministers and permanent secretaries throughout Whitehall.
Her critics say this gives her enormous patronage, and an enormous ability to reward loyalty. One of them remarked that she is “very clear in a crisis, very cool, very collected”. But the same figure added that in his opinion, “she quite literally makes it up as she goes along”.
For although she is the guardian of the various codes of conduct for ministers, officials and special advisers, she is not inclined to commit her verdicts to paper, or indeed email, or to relate them to first principles. Word of mouth is preferred, and the deciding factor is whether something “feels right”.
If you are thinking of recommending one of your friends for a life peerage, and want to know if this character is likely to survive scrutiny, the best thing is to ring Gray and run the name past her.
But how in the end do any of us decide whether a minister ought to resign? On almost all such occasions, a swirling mass of considerations, some serious, some frivolous, compete for attention.
As the late Alan Watkins wrote in A Conservative Coup, his account of the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, while recounting the forced resignation from the Cabinet of Nicholas Ridley in July 1990 (after Ridley had given an interview to the Spectator in which by implication – and certainly in the accompanying cartoon by Nicholas Garland – he likened Helmut Kohl to Adolf Hitler), on such occasions, “The game of Hunt-the-Issue is played enthusiastically.”
When Ridley went, Thatcher was left, Watkins remarks, “without a single committed supporter inside the Cabinet”. And within a few months, she too was gone.
So Gray’s decision about Green – an even more important prop to May than Ridley was to Thatcher – is of the utmost significance. Getting an official to advise in secret, with a complete lack of transparency, is not ideal, but at least it provides some time, and is preferable to bringing in a senior police officer, or some retired business person, both of whom would be affronted, and indeed confused, by the way politics works.
Gray knows the system inside out. If one considers how many ministers have come and gone while she has remained in post, one could say she provides a cradle to grave service.
As yet another Whitehall insider puts it, “When there’s a Cabinet reshuffle, Sue gets out her whiteboard and brings it downstairs.” She helps fit the new government jigsaw together.
As a new minister, you are photographed walking up Downing Street, ushered in to see the Prime Minister, told (say) that you are the new Home Secretary, and then, immediately after this exhilarating interview, find yourself meeting Gray in a little ante-room next door.
In the words of the informant quoted a couple of paragraphs ago, “She’s right in there like a rat up a drainpipe as soon as a new administration is formed.”
She is your new best friend. She tells you how wonderful your appointment is, if she already knows you she gives you a hug, and she tells you what the rules are.
“There is a creation of indebtedness from the start,” as my source put it. “She inveigles her way in by being terribly helpful on stuff.”
Gray will help you to make a success of your great new position. She knows every Permanent Secretary, and you get her to sort things out.
She becomes your friend because she is the person you rely on. Everything goes swimmingly until the moment when there is a divergence of views, and you realise her loyalty is to the system – to Heywood and his predecessor, Gus O’Donnell – rather than to you.
One of her most remarkable demonstrations of her ability to get on with the new people running Downing Street was her rapprochement with May’s two advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. When they were at the Home Office, Gray was an enemy in their battle with Number Ten. She was particularly unsatisfactory during the dreadful row at the end of 2014, when Timothy and his colleague Stephen Parkinson refused to campaign on behalf of the Conservatives in the Rochester by-election.
They said this would be a breach of the rules for special advisers, which prohibited political campaigning, but Gray refused to back them up on this. Cameron meanwhile wanted all special advisers to do as he told them. The whole row was very bitter, and Timothy and Parkinson were barred from standing as Conservative candidates in the 2015 general election.
Yet in 2016, when May became Prime Minister and summoned Timothy, Hill and Parkinson to her side to help her run things, there was Gray waiting to greet them. Suddenly she was regarded once more as a fantastic asset.
For whenever British politicians falter, British civil servants, especially Gray, help fill the vacuum and keep the show on the road.