Grotesque, appalling and cynical! Keir Starmer’s appointment of Partygate investigator Sue Gray vindicates Boris Johnson, writes STEPHEN POLLARD
Not much shocks me after spending nearly 40 years writing about Westminster and Whitehall. From venality to stupidity, corruption to mendacity, I’ve seen it all.
But yesterday’s appointment by Sir Keir Starmer of Sue Gray, the civil servant who led the Partygate inquiry, as his chief of staff is not just shocking.
It is grotesque, appalling and cynical. It is a betrayal of the fundamental principle of neutrality that the civil service is meant to embody. It will be bound to fuel suspicions that the Partygate probe into Boris Johnson’s time as prime minister was a Labour plot all along.
And it is, one must also admit, a vindication of Boris Johnson.
As it happens, I am no fan of the ex-PM — and shed no tears when he left No 10. But even as a critic of Boris, I believe that there is only one phrase to capture Sue Gray’s appointment to this plum Labour role.
STEPHEN POLLARD: Yesterday’s appointment by Sir Keir Starmer of Sue Gray (pictured), the civil servant who led the Partygate inquiry, as his chief of staff is not just shocking
It is grotesque, appalling and cynical. It is a betrayal of the fundamental principle of neutrality that the civil service is meant to embody (Starmer is pictured on February 27)
And it has also made me rethink entirely my attitude towards what now appear to be clearly partisan inquiries into Mr Johnson’s behaviour during the pandemic.
For many months last year, you will remember, Mr Johnson’s allies made clear that they believed Ms Gray’s probe was little more than a stitch-up — that his Establishment and Labour opponents were hell-bent on getting revenge for Brexit and determined to do him in.
After the first chair of the inquiry into ‘lockdown-busting’ events at Downing Street, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, recused himself from proceedings amid claims he had broken the rules himself, it was vital for Sue Gray to be whiter than white.
Her job was highly unusual. She was investigator, judge and jury in one of the most politically explosive inquiries in modern history.
Her allies silkily assured us all that she was the embodiment of impartiality, in claims that now ring deeply hollow today. But even the early signs were far from encouraging.
Read more: Johnson allies slam Keir Starmer’s appointment of Sue Gray as his Chief of Staff
Sir Keir is keen to have a civil servant with experience at the highest levels of Whitehall by his side
It was, after all, a puzzle why Ms Gray kept in place one of her key advisers on the report, Daniel Stilitz QC, despite him publicly accusing the Tories of ‘serving up bile’ and his retweeting of a post describing Mr Johnson as ‘our reckless dangerous PM’. Tellingly, in a 2016 post, Stilitz wrote: ‘Why not join Labour? Now seems as good a time as any.’
It was, of course, nakedly partisan — and wholly inappropriate for such an investigation. Now we know better. Critics will be asking whether it was because of Mr Stilitz’s brazen political bias that Ms Gray was so happy to see him in his post in the first place.
Of course, none of us can know what went on in Ms Gray’s mind as she conducted her inquiry, which was finally published in May last year. Some recalcitrant Remainers believe she did not go far enough in censuring Boris, while allies of the former PM insist that she went too far.
But perception is what truly matters.
And in going to work at the heart of the Labour Party in the run-up to a General Election — taking with her an intricate and high-level understanding of the Government’s legislative agenda — she has trashed everything she purported to uphold while working at Whitehall. No wonder so many civil servants, whatever their private political beliefs, are admitting they are furious about her taking the job.
Imagine if a judge in an Old Bailey trial sent down the boss of a business, convicting him of a serious crime, and then within months left the judiciary to go and work for the convicted man’s leading competitor. There would, rightly, be outrage.
But that is more or less what Ms Gray is now seeking to do — even if her appointment to work for Sir Keir must still be cleared by the quango that rubber-stamps jobs for departing civil servants.
All along, throughout the interminable Partygate farrago, the Mail has doggedly insisted that it bore the taint of a Labour-Remainer stitch-up, and that Boris never stood a chance of getting a fair hearing.
I will be honest. Until yesterday, I had my doubts. I still believed in our ‘Rolls-Royce’ civil service and its ability to conduct such an inquiry fairly, no matter how politically charged.
Naively, perhaps, I thought that distinguished mandarins rose to the top of their profession thanks to their sense of public service and their willingness to do the legitimate bidding of any government that had won power in a fair and free election.
Keir Starmer’s appointment of Partygate investigator Sue Gray vindicates Boris Johnson (pictured on March 2)
I assumed they left their own political beliefs at the door — or resigned on principle if they could not effect the wishes of the ministers they served.
Sue Gray has shown me what a fool I was.
It goes without saying that, in a single moment, she has destroyed the public’s faith in the integrity of her own report. Nobody will take it seriously now. She will be seen as having confirmed every accusation of bias against the Whitehall machine.
For me, this is a deeply personal moment. My father, Bernard Pollard, was a civil servant all his working life.
He ended his career as a permanent secretary — the highest rank in the Whitehall pecking order.
Neutrality was so essential to him that, to this day — and even though I endlessly told him about my own political leanings during adolescence and beyond — I still have no idea which way he voted.
Dad was so determined to avoid the taint of bias that we would undergo the same ritual every Christmas.
Someone — I never found out who, but I can only assume it was a minister or another senior party figure — would send him a hamper. And, every year, he would have it sent straight back, with a polite card declining the gift.
He knew that the appearance of bias was just as bad as the real thing — and that in some ways, it was worse.
Frankly, my father would have been disgusted by today’s top mandarins. They think nothing of accepting freebies to Wimbledon and sold-out pop concerts. And when they get bored of pretending to be neutral, like Ms Gray, they betray their allegiances and sign up to the party they clearly preferred all along.
Her move must now be approved by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), the body that looks at civil servants’ new jobs outside Whitehall. Chaired by former Tory minister Eric Pickles, it is difficult to see how it can fairly approve Ms Gray’s new role, given all of the above. This will be a test of its independence.
I know that in my father’s day, British public life had its faults. But it was nonetheless widely held up as a model of propriety, with an impartial civil service to which the world looked for an example.
Today, large parts of Whitehall simply exist as another branch of the Left-wing Blob.
Sue Gray’s behaviour has been shameful, yes. But at least, from now on, no one can doubt what it means.
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