ANDREW PIERCE: The ex-pub landlady Sue Gray who holds Boris’s fate in her hands as she investigates the most controversial garden party in history
Boris Johnson blanched when he learnt who he had to appoint as head of the official inquiry into the series of apparent lockdown-breaking parties held and attended by the Government during the pandemic.
He knows the ‘formidable’ Sue Gray all too well – and her reputation for unceremoniously ending ministerial careers.
While running the Cabinet Office’s ‘propriety and ethics team’ between 2012 and 2018, Gray claimed the scalps of no fewer than three senior Tories, as well as probing a host of other embarrassing matters.
Now she is to investigate the most controversial garden party in history: The ‘bring your own booze’ shindig held at Downing Street on May 20, 2020 – attended by the PM and his then fiancee Carrie.
Last night one of the Prime Minister’s supporters told me: ‘Of course Boris is nervous about Gray. She’s focused, professional and rigorous.’
So what’s his strategy? ‘He has to hope her conclusions lead to a pile-up of other bodies that will deflect attention from him,’ says my source. ‘Is a civil servant really going to end a Prime Minister’s career?’
Pictured: Sue Gray, Director General, Propriety and Ethics arrives for work in Whitehall
That is the question haunting Boris today as his premiership totters amid the most explosive scandal of his chequered career.
He was forced to appoint a mandarin so powerful she has been dubbed ‘Deputy God’ after Simon Case, Boris’s previous candidate, had to recuse himself from the inquiry last month. It emerged that one of the Downing Street gatherings had taken place in Case’s own office.
And Boris and Gray have already crossed swords – including when he was foreign secretary.
In 2017, a pro-Brexit think-tank had held its launch at the foreign office free of charge. Gray later ruled that the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT) should have paid commercial rates to use this government space – but Boris sought to overrule her and his own permanent secretary.
One observer noted at the time: ‘A slash of scarlet lipstick and bouffant brown hair should not distract from the truth that she is a steely enforcer of Whitehall authority.’
Just ask Damian Green, at one time Theresa May’s deputy. In 2017, Green resigned having admitted he had lied about the presence of pornography on his Commons computer – and after being investigated by one Sue Gray.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons
Then there was the 2012 ‘Plegbate’ scandal, in which former Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell was said to have insulted police officers guarding Downing Street.
Gray again led the inquiry into the affair, which finally saw the privately educated Mitchell resign in disgrace in 2012 after weeks of public fury.
A year earlier, Liam Fox had quit as defence secretary while being investigated by Gray over claims he broke the ministerial code.
This followed weeks of pressure over his working relationship with Adam Werritty, a friend and supposed adviser. Gray had interviewed Werritty – and her report was pivotal to Fox’s defenestration. Today Gray, 65, is the ‘second permanent secretary’ at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
But she has returned to an inquisitorial role she seems to relish – and now wields such power that many believe she might even bring down the Prime Minister.
The diplomacy and strength of nerve needed to carry out such a job were honed far from Westminster.
Pictured: Sue Gray who will take over from Cabinet Secretary Simon Case who has ‘recused himself’ from leading an investigation into lockdown-breaking parties across Whitehall
While on a career break during the 1980s from the Civil Service she had joined some years before, Gray and her country-and-western-singing Northern Irish husband, Bill Conlon, bought a pub, the Cove Bar, in the border town of Newry, Northern Ireland.
It was at the height of the Troubles in ‘Bandit Country’: A 200 square mile militarised zone bristling with road blocks and watchtowers.
In 2017, one customer remembered her as ‘a good landlady’, adding that ‘she would have known not to open her mouth’ about her work for the British government.
Conlon and his band, Emerald, performed in the bar. There is a clutch of videos on YouTube of her husband promoting his songs.
Talking of being a pub landlady, Gray said: ‘I loved it at the time [but] I’d never do it again.’
Returning to the Civil Service and working across Transport, Health and Work and Pensions departments, she joined the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s. Over the years she has witnessed many ministerial reshuffles.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the Prime Minister’s Questions at the House of Commons
‘Sue gets out her whiteboard and helps fit the new government together,’ said one source.
After new ministers were photographed by the waiting Press marching up Downing Street to see the Prime Minister, Gray as ethics chief was often waiting for them in an anteroom next door to the PM’s study.
One former minister said: ‘She was like a rat up a drainpipe as soon as a new administration was formed. She was your new best friend, told you how wonderful your appointment was, she would hug you if she knew you, and then told you what the rules are.’ Gray is also in charge of the team set up by the veteran minister Michael Gove to defend the Union.
Tory minister Oliver Letwin once said of her: ‘Unless she agrees, things just don’t happen. Cabinet reshuffles, departmental reorganisations – 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.’
While her true political beliefs are of course her secret, she had warm relations with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s famously abrasive communications chief.
In 2009, Campbell wrote in his diaries that Gray had revealed to him her strong views on Gordon Brown’s government. Revealing that she had urged Campbell to run as an MP, he wrote: ‘She felt Labour were badly in need of direction and none of the people at the top could give it.’
The ‘surprisingly candid’ Gray reportedly told Campbell that Brown’s government was ‘dysfunctional’.
In 2020 she was overlooked to be the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, saying: ‘I suspect people may have thought that I perhaps was too much of a challenger, or a disrupter.’
Boris – who has to sign off her inquiry and who knows he could struggle to delay publication of her hotly anticipated conclusions – will surely be fearing the ‘challenges’ her questions will represent.
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