Sue Gray: who is the UK civil servant leading the 'Partygate' inquiry?

Story behind former publican heading investigation into rule-breaking Covid lockdown gatherings at Downing Street

British civil servant Sue Gray, who has led two reviews into the behaviour of MPs in the past, is set to provide further details of the Downing Street gatherings in her 'Partygate' report. Reuters
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Britain's senior civil servant Sue Gray is no stranger to an investigation and is currently leading an inquiry into coronavirus lockdown rule breaches at No 10 Downing Street.

Ms Gray has been investigating repeated allegations that UK government staff, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie, held a number of gatherings in contravention to Covid-19 restrictions.

The Cabinet Office official, who has previously led two reviews into the behaviour of MPs, is set to provide further details about the gatherings in her 'Partygate' report. Her findings are expected to be published soon.

While Ms Gray might be an elusive character to the public, some politicians have gone so far as to suggest the former publican is the “real leader” of the UK.

In her former role as director general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018, she is said to have overseen Cabinet reshuffles and served as a guiding hand in compiling honours lists. Ms Gray even signed off political memoirs before their publication.

The diplomacy skills required for such a sensitive role might well have been honed in a location far removed from Whitehall. Ms Gray and her country and western singer husband Bill Conlon bought and ran a pub in Newry, Northern Ireland, at the height of the Troubles in the late 1980s.

In December, Ms Gray, said to be in her mid-60s, found herself thrust into the limelight after being chosen to step in to lead the investigation into possible wrongdoing in Downing Street. Cabinet secretary Simon Case — her boss — had recused himself following allegations that his own office held a Christmas event in December 2020.

The probe includes investigating Mr Johnson — leaving her in a “very difficult” position, according to a former senior mandarin. However, this role is one she is “best” placed for, despite it being a “step beyond anything she will have done in the past”.

Sir David Normington, a former Whitehall permanent secretary, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “She will be very aware that she has the reputation and possibly the careers of senior civil servants and possibly of the prime minister in her hands, and that is a very difficult position to be in, however fair and fearless and rigorous you are.

“If we are going to have a civil servant doing it, Sue Gray is the best person to do it."

Ms Gray’s reviews of senior Cabinet ministerial behaviour have led to high-profile sackings and resignations.

Former prime minister Theresa May got her on board to investigate her close ally Damian Green over allegations that he had lied about the presence of pornographic images on his House of Commons computer. Ms Gray also spearheaded the so-called “plebgate” inquiry into claims that then-chief whip Andrew Mitchell had insulted police officers in Downing Street.

Sue Gray's report details parties held in Downing street during Covid-19 lockdowns. AFP

David Laws, a former minister in the coalition government, said former PM David Cameron’s ex-policy chief Oliver Letwin once told him that Ms Gray was the brains behind the UK government operation.

Writing in his memoir about the 2010-2015 power-sharing administration, Mr Law quotes Mr Letwin as saying: “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!”

Former chancellor George Osborne suggested Ms Gray had not been shy about reprimanding prime ministers in the past.

An anti-Boris Johnson protester holds a placard in reference to the Sue Gray report, in central London. AP

Some critics have suggested Ms Gray has been influential in blocking freedom of information requests. The former BBC Newsnight journalist Chris Cook reported in 2015 that she was “notorious for her determination not to leave a document trail” and had assisted departments to “fight disclosures”.

According to her government biography, Ms Gray started working for the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s after her stint behind the bar in Northern Ireland during a “career break”.

After her time as head of ethics in the Cabinet Office, she served as the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland from 2018 to 2021, before taking up her current post.

Since May 2021, she has been back in the Cabinet Office as second permanent secretary in a role that also involves responsibilities in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Updated: May 25, 2022, 9:09 AM