Sir Keir Starmer's mask will be torn away after the Graygate probe04/29/2023
DAN HODGES: Sir Keir Starmer’s mask will be torn away after the Graygate probe – and people won’t like what they see
Sir Keir Starmer’s mask will finally slip this week – or rather, be torn away – when the results of a Civil Service probe into his appointment of senior Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray as his chief of staff are revealed to Parliament.
Ministers have been kept in the dark about the inquiry – Gray’s former colleagues have wanted to ensure there could be no suggestions of political interference as they investigated one of their own.
But The Mail on Sunday understands that the Cabinet Office has concluded the informal examination into her defection. And apparently it will make grim reading for Labour’s leader.
I’m told the investigation will confirm that none of the meetings between Gray and Starmer were disclosed to Ministers or senior Government officials.
At the time, she was Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office – one of the most powerful roles in Whitehall. But the talks were held covertly, and when news of them leaked, it came as a bolt from the blue to Gray’s own bosses.
Ministers have been kept in the dark about the inquiry – Gray’s former colleagues have wanted to ensure there could be no suggestions of political interference (pictured in February)
This would prove a damning conclusion, because it appears to represent a clear breach of the Civil Service Code – the benchmark by which every Government official, junior or senior, is judged.
Every new appointee is told that the code ‘sets out the standards of behaviour expected of you and other civil servants. These are based on the core values which are set out in legislation.’
But the investigation appears to have found that Gray failed to maintain those standards in a number of key areas.
One of them is ‘impartiality’. Gray was involved in secret discussions with the Leader of the Opposition to join his office as his most senior political appointee at the same time as she was serving the Government of the day and conducting sensitive meetings with Ministers.
Another issue is ‘honesty’. The code is clear. Civil servants cannot ‘deceive or knowingly mislead Ministers, Parliament or others’.
But Ministers were kept completely in the dark about her talks with their political rivals.
A third matter is ‘integrity’. The code stipulates that staff must ‘always act in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence of all those with whom you have dealings’. Yet again, how could Tory Ministers have confidence in a civil servant who was holding secretive meetings with their opponents?
From the perspective of senior civil servants, this inquiry could not have come at a worse time.
Dominic Raab’s fall, brought about in part by a series of unsubstantiated complaints from a shadowy cabal of Ministry of Justice officials, has placed Civil Service neutrality back in the political spotlight. And Gray’s actions have only added to the perception there is indeed a small clique in Whitehall seeking to actively undermine Rishi Sunak’s Government.
That’s why the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) watchdog, which advises on the efficacy of appointments for former Ministers and civil servants, is expected to block Sue Gray from taking up her position with Labour for the maximum period of two years when it rules on her case. And that would represent a serious blow for Starmer.
First, it would leave a big hole at the heart of his political operation.
Gray was involved in secret discussions with the Leader of the Opposition (pictured on April 27) to join his office as his most senior political appointee at the same time as she was serving the Government of the day
Gray’s appointment was his first major decision in preparation for his hoped-for transition from Opposition to Government. And it has dramatically backfired
The job of chief of staff for a Prime Minister does not have the public profile of the communications or campaigning roles. Jonathan Powell, who held the post under Tony Blair, never attracted the attention of the scriptwriters in the same way as Alastair Campbell or Peter Mandelson.
But the role is similar to the one of a senior engineer, responsible for ensuring the machine of government keeps running.
And with such a lengthy prohibition on taking up her position, it’s impossible to see how Gray could still join Starmer’s inner circle.
Another problem for Starmer is what it says about his judgment.
Gray’s appointment was his first major decision in preparation for his hoped-for transition from Opposition to Government. And it has dramatically backfired.
Labour still enjoys a healthy poll lead. There are hundreds of experienced former civil servants and public officials who would have been only too happy to accept the position. Yet for some reason he decided to make a clumsy grab for the one senior official he couldn’t have. Even worse, he was unable to conduct his negotiations with her without them leaking to the media. With the effect that he has compromised her as much as he has compromised himself.
But the biggest impact of Gray-gate is not what it reveals about her personal and professional integrity, it is what it says about Sir Keir Starmer’s integrity.
Since becoming leader, he has wanted voters to see probity as his unique selling point. When Partygate was raging, Starmer told the Commons: ‘The motion I have tabled seeks to defend the simple principle that honesty, integrity and telling the truth matters in our politics. It is a British principle.’
But not, it seems, a principle upheld by himself and his new chief of staff.
Read more: DAN HODGES: If Sir Keir Starmer really is a new broom to clean up politics, why do his actions never match his words?
Technically, the Cabinet Office investigation will only reference Gray’s actions and any breaches of the code – a code she once policed herself as the civil servant responsible for propriety and ethics within Government. But by encouraging and plotting her defection, Starmer is just as guilty as she is. He is, in effect, an accessory to the fact.
Obviously this Whitehall morality play will not be high on the list of priorities for voters struggling to pay their bills or secure a GP appointment. But it matters.
One reason we know it matters is because Starmer never stops banging on about how it matters.
Integrity in public office. Obeying the edicts of the Ministerial Code. Restoring public faith in the individuals and institutions that govern them.
But it also matters because it feeds into the perception that, for all his preaching, when you scratch the surface Starmer is just as slippery and conniving as any other politician. Last week, details were published of a focus group conducted by J.L. Partners, run by several former No 10 aides. The public’s views of Labour’s leader were brutal but consistent. Sample opinions were: ‘Insincere, slimeball, can’t stand the man as he comes off so insincere and don’t believe a word he says.’ ‘Very grey, doesn’t have a stance on anything.’ ‘Just keeps skipping from one thing to another.’
Starmer decided from the outset of his leadership to place integrity at the heart of his personal brand. Yet, slowly but surely, that brand image is being eroded.
We’ve seen the abandonment of his Ten Pledges made during his leadership bid. His flip-flopping on trans rights. His online smears against Rishi Sunak. His selective and self-serving framing of his time as Director of Public Prosecutions. His eviction from the party of his former ‘friend’ Jeremy Corbyn. And now his maladroit clumsy manipulation of Sue Gray.
Starmer’s allies attempt to spin all this as proof of his single-minded focus on securing power. ‘Keir is prepared to do whatever it takes to win,’ one told me.
Maybe he is. But in the process, Labour’s leader is gradually being found out.
In truth, to him, integrity and honesty were just another couple of soundbites to be discarded when political expediency dictates.
This week, Sir Keir Starmer’s mask will be torn away. The British people are unlikely to warm to what lies underneath.
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