In the wake of Sir Keir Starmer’s decision to appoint Sue Gray, until recently one of the highest captains of the Civil Service, as his chief of staff, there have swiftly emerged two camps, both alike in tediousness.
On the one side are the die-hard Boris Johnson supporters to take the move as proof – if more were needed! – that their man was the victim of an establishment stitch-up. The woman who helped bring down their election-winning champion has now pinned her colours to the Labour mast.
Arrayed against them are those who insist there’s absolutely nothing to see here. It is perfectly proper for a civil servant to take a political job; there is no credible evidence against Gray’s personal integrity; it is unreasonable, if not ridiculous, for anybody to object.
The latter camp are closer to the truth, I suspect. As I wrote previously of the Privileges Committee, the willingness of some Johnsonites to perceive a witch-hunt seems far to exceed any actual evidence of torches, pitchforks, capotains, and the other traditional accoutrements of the pastime.
So why do I conflate the “Rightist Bennites” with the sensible centrists? Because the latter are, in the main, much more prominent. Their platforms are larger. And thus their error, whilst much smaller in degree, makes up the shortcoming in weight.
That error is this: one does not need to buy into the conspiracist story of Gray’s new job, nor into the idea that it is always improper for civil servants to take up political posts, nor doubt her personal qualities, to think that this civil servant taking up this job at this time is potentially a dangerous move.
Alex Thomas of the Institute for Government – not a noted bastion of right-wing institution-scepticism, to put it mildly – neatly sums up the problems:
Three quick reactions
– obviously important the ACOBA process is followed (which the PM signs off…). How long an employment gap?
– but nature of Sue’s work over decades means she can’t unknow what she knows. What assurances can be given on future info sharing? Are they credible? https://t.co/0ydnZtL5uB
— Alex Thomas (@AlexGAThomas) March 2, 2023
We can probably safely assume that both Gray and Starmer will have followed the ACOBA process correctly (although it would be very funny if they haven’t).
But the other two issues are perfectly sensible criticisms. Gray has occupied a perhaps near-uniquely central role in Whitehall across an extended period of Conservative government, and she can’t unlearn what she saw and heard at that time.
The issue of assurances about information-sharing is not just procedural. Senior ministers need to be able to trust senior mandarins for government to function.
Already, the habit of some civil servants to give anonymous briefings to the press about policies they don’t like is corrosive to that trust. There is no indication Gray is one such, to be clear, but the nagging fear that private discussions might one day be borne into the HQ of the opposite party is likely to be yet another factor pushing politicians towards mistrust.
As with the collapse of the documentary record following the Freedom of Information Act, there won’t be a big-bang moment when the cost of this becomes obvious. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be paying it.
Likewise, those who saw an establishment conspiracy in the Partygate enquiry don’t need to be right for Gray’s appointment to make the work of persuading them they aren’t harder than before. Nor is scepticism towards the Civil Service, of a less unreasonable sort, confined to that section of the Conservative Party.
The thing about powerful, impartial institutions with a privileged position in public life is that a loss of confidence in them by one side, or even just a substantial portion of one side, matters, whether one thinks such attitudes are well-grounded or not.
Ignoring this risks running into a version of America’s neutral-vs-conservative institutional dynamic. As the author notes, you don’t have to like or respect the conservative outlets to see that widespread right-wing secession from the older, once-shared ones is a bad thing.
Such polarisation is not a process to which only the bad people contribute. Moves that might fuel that tendency here ought, therefore, to at least not be dismissed out of hand.
There is unlikely to be a big moment where this decision goes spectacularly right or wrong for Starmer. If not will be possible, and likely tempting, to dismiss the current furore as a storm in a teacup.
But that something is not happening in dramatic fashion doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, and this decision may one day look like one more step towards a place where British politics divides, not totally but enough to matter, into being for or against institutions which ought to be apolitical buttresses to governing the nation.
Had Starmer truly wished to steer his opponents away from Johnsonian attitudes, he ought perhaps to have made a different choice.