She’s the name that’s on everyone’s lips in Westminster. As Tory ministers flounder to defend their beleaguered leader over partygate, their oft-repeated line ‘let’s wait for Sue Gray’s inquiry’ has elevated the little-known civil servant investigating No. 10's parties into something of a Delphic oracle, the woman whose judgements could make or break a Prime Minister. But just who is the mandarin dubbed by her colleagues ‘Deputy God?’
Gray is, in some respects, a classic Whitehall mandarin. Now in her mid-sixties, she’s spent the bulk of her career climbing the rungs in the civil service since the 1970s, with stints in the Transport, Health and DWP ministries. Yet what distinguishes her from many of her safety-first peers is a willingness to embrace challenges fraught with political difficulty. Her greatest hits include spearheading the inquiries into ‘Plebgate’ and the Damian Green porn scandal. For it was while serving as the Cabinet Office’s director-general of the propriety and ethics team between 2012 and 2018 that she really made her name.
Her power has extended over the last five prime ministerships and is at its greatest when things go wrong. One BBC journalist dubbed her ‘the most powerful person you’ve never heard of’, a Cabinet minister called her the woman who actually ‘runs Britain.’ In this capacity she vetted the honours list, civil service appointments and oversaw ministerial private offices. In short: she knew where the bodies were buried. Since then, she worked in the Northern Ireland executive before returning in May 2021 as Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office – the nerve-centre of government.
Yet Gray has her critics and is by no means infallible. Journalist Chris Cook has criticised the lack of transparency in how she operates, noting her enthusiasm for concealing document trails and advising special advisers on how to destroy emails by 'double deletion' to thwart Freedom of Information requests. While at the Cabinet Office she kept no log of why, how or when she destroys documents (contrary to official guidance) while her refusal on seven occasions to confirm the rules on special advisers campaigning in elections stopped three leading Tories – Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill and Stephen Parkinson – from being selected as candidates in 2015. But, as Andrew Gimson notes:
“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.
What emerges from various profiles, conversations with Whitehall insiders and public records themselves is a woman whose overarching loyalty is to the system she serves. That fact in itself could be the most damning indictment when Gray delivers her findings: whether Whitehall itself thinks the PM should survive.
There are few ‘fun facts’ scattering the various profiles about the woman who now holds Boris Johnson’s fate in her hands. Most though, mention how she quit the civil service for a time in the 1980s to go run a pub in Northern Ireland, where, presumably, she meted out justice in much the same way as she now does in Whitehall.
Will it be last orders for Boris Johnson when the landlady calls time?