HAVING OFFERED a grudging apology to MPs for attending a drinks party during lockdown, Boris Johnson, Britain’s beleaguered prime minister, now has to wait for the results of an official inquiry into Partygate. This could well decide his fate. If he is found to have transgressed, he could resign, or his own Conservative MPs might force a leadership election and dump him.
He certainly can’t expect a soft ride from Sue Gray, the 65-year-old civil servant in charge of the inquiry. She is investigating at least four occasions on which the rules may have been breached in Downing Street, and may have to add yet more. It emerged on January 13th that a couple of raucous parties were held there in April 2021, on the eve of the funeral of Prince Philip. Variously nicknamed the “inquisitor-in-chief”, “deputy God” or “the most powerful person in Britain you’ve never heard of”, Ms Gray, over a long career in Whitehall, has established herself as a fair—but ruthless—arbiter of the ministerial code of conduct, which governs how cabinet members should behave. As the official in charge of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018, for instance, she finished off the careers of three Tory ministers for breaching the code. She has presided over many similar investigations.
Her effectiveness as an enforcer may be explained by her atypical career. Unlike her fast-track Oxbridge peers, Ms Gray never attended university and joined the civil service at the bottom. Others take career breaks to study climate change at Harvard or help run posh investment banks. Ms Gray joined her husband, Bill Conlon, to run a pub near Newry in Northern Ireland, an area known as “bandit country” during the Troubles. She pulled pints while he provided the music, fronting his own very fine country and western band, Emerald. Moving back to the civil service, she served for a time in the Northern Ireland Office before returning to the centre of government. She is currently a senior mandarin at the Department for Levelling Up. Whereas most civil servants at least try to be emollient, Ms Gray, fearless and thorough, is a self-declared “challenger”.
Some question whether she should be sitting in judgment on other civil servants. They include her own immediate boss, the cabinet secretary Simon Case. He was originally due to lead the inquiry, but was forced to recuse himself when it was revealed that he may also have hosted a social event in his own office during lockdown. Ms Gray, however, may have been the better choice all along. If anyone can spot the difference between a booze-up and a “policy discussion”, it must be a former publican.
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