Waiting for Sue Gray… again

Oh God, Partygate is back in the news. It’s going to be like the torrid Summer of 2022 all over again.

Senior British civil servant Sue Gray
It’s Sue Gray
  • Oliver Dowden was Sue Gray’s boss until she stepped down last week.
  • In his role as Cabinet Office Minister responsible for propriety and ethics, Dowden will now investigate Gray’s conduct in taking up her new job at the Labour Party.
  • Our MP’s probably saying a little prayer of gratitude that he wasn’t in the Cabinet Office during #WhatsAppGate.

There’s great excitement in government this week, especially in the Cabinet Office. There can’t be anything more thrilling for a minister responsible for propriety and ethics than to get stuck into a case that might make life harder for His Majesty’s Oppostion. The Tory press is also excited. Starmer and Labour have been polling a steady 20 points ahead of the Tories so they’ve grabbed at this story with something resembling desperation.

And cases like this don’t come along very often: it was the Conservatives who invented the revolving door, after all. About 90% of MPs’ income from second jobs goes to Tories and the vast majority of submissions to the appointments watchdog are from Tories. They’ve had the game to themselves for a long time.

Of course, the irony is that making a fuss about Starmer’s frankly weird decision to appoint Sue Gray (is it possible that Starmer is not the strategy ninja we thought him to be?) might just function to remind the electorate about partygate and all the other hilarious pratfalls of the Johnson era. And the fact that the other prominent partygate civil servant, Simon “Wine Fridge” Case, is a main character in this story and in the very, very tawdry WhatsApp drama, can’t help. Apparently he’s thinking of resigning.

A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

Oliver Dowden, as the most senior Cabinet Office Minister, sponsors ACOBA, the advisory committee that will now have to decide how long Sue Gray has to wait before taking up the Labour job. Remember, when Dowden was up before the beak himself last year he was required to wait the absolute minimum of three months before taking a handsome wedge from a hedge fund. They have it in their power, though, to ask Gray to wait up to two years – making her, presumably, useless to Labour.

In practice, though, long waits to take up appointments are rare and many think the committee is essentially an easy touch. Hardly anyone is ever forbidden from taking up a job. It would certainly look awkward if the first time ACOBA puts its foot down properly is over a Labour Party appointment.

  • We looked into how ACOBA (the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments) works late last year.
  • Back in 2017, when she was required to investigate the conduct of another Tory minister, BBC Radio 4 profiled Sue Gray.