Sir Keir Starmer and Sue Gray ‘broke at least one of four anti-sleaze rules’: Ministers accuse Labour leader and top civil servant of breaching transparency code after holding ‘covert’ talks about her controversial chief of staff position
- Keir Starmer came under fire after offering a chief of staff position to Sue Gray
- Ministers claimed the job offer ‘broke at least on of four anti-sleaze rules’
Sir Keir Starmer was accused today of playing ‘fast and loose’ with anti-sleaze rules over his controversial job offer to the senior civil servant who led the Partygate investigation.
In a fiery Commons debate, ministers said at least one of four transparency rules was apparently broken during ‘covert’ talks between Labour and Sue Gray about making her Sir Keir’s chief of staff.
Furious Tory MPs branded the fiasco a ‘grubby scandal’ which has cast a ‘dark stain on democracy’.
Others said ‘immense damage’ had been inflicted on the civil service’s reputation for impartiality and urged Labour to ‘come clean’ by publishing details of its conversations with Ms Gray.
Sir Keir was also challenged to ‘come out of hiding’ as he failed to attend the debate, with the party last night still refusing to disclose any details as the political storm over the appointment grew.
The Labour leader has come under fire after offering the position of his chief of staff to civil servant Sue Gray (pictured), who wrote a damning report into Boris Johnson’s Government’s partygate antics last year
Earlier, in a car crash moment during an LBC interview, the Labour leader squirmed as he refused nine times to say when Ms Gray was first approached about the job.
Ms Gray, who conducted the Partygate probe which contributed to Boris Johnson’s downfall, dramatically quit her senior civil service role on Thursday to become Sir Keir’s chief of staff.
Allies of Mr Johnson claim the move shows her report into Downing Street gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic was a Labour ‘stitch-up’.
LBC radio presenter Nick Ferrari repeatedly asked Sir Keir Starmer when he first offered a job to Sue Gray, pictured, only to be stonewalled each time.
Nick Ferrari (NF): You will remember in January 2022 last year, you said to me, ‘full disclosure, I know Sue Gray personally’. When did you first approach Sue Gray to be your chief of staff? [The first time the Labour leader was asked]
Sir Keir Starmer (KS): I met her when I was Director of Public Prosecutions [in 2008-2013]. So I’ve known her personally since then. She’s not a friend, I don’t mix with her. I’m not in the same social circles or anything like that.
NF: Might I ask when you first approached her to be your chief of staff? [2nd time he was asked]
KS: I have been on the lookout for a chief of staff for a little while now. And obviously Sue will set out that, but [there was] nothing improper at all.
NF: But when did you approach her? Can I ask when you approached Sue? [3rd time]
KS: I’ve been looking for a chief of staff for a number of weeks.
NF: I will try again. Obviously you don’t have to answer, but when did you first contact Sue Gray about the possibility of becoming your chief of staff? [4th]
KS: Nick that’s going to be laid out by Sue. She’s got to do that as part of a leaving procedure but there’s nothing improper at all.
NF: But you can’t tell me that? [5th]
KS: Nick, nothing improper at all.
NF: No, no, but you can’t tell me when you first approached her? [6th]
KS: I’ve been looking for a chief of staff for a little while but Sue will lay that out.
NF: Why won’t you tell me? [7th]
KS: There’s nothing improper at all.
NF: But just answer. Why won’t you answer when you first made contact with her? [8th]
KS: I’m not going to go through lock, stock and barrel. But there’s nothing improper, it’s not unusual.
NF: But if it’s not improper, then why won’t you say that it was a month ago Nick, or it was six weeks ago Nick, or it was on New Year’s Day? [9th]
KS: Nick, I’ve been looking for some time and there’s nothing improper in the slightest.
They say it also undermines the Commons Privileges Committee investigation into whether the former prime minister misled the Commons over what he knew about lockdown breeches.
Opening yesterday’s debate, Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin set out four rules which may have been breached.
One required Ms Gray to seek approval from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) watchdog before the job offer was announced. But Mr Quin said this was apparently yet to be done.
He told MPs: ‘The rules state that approval must be obtained [from ACOBA] prior to a job offer being announced.
‘The Cabinet Office has not as yet been informed that the relevant notification to ACOBA has been made.’
Three other rules may also have been breached, he added, including declaring on an ‘on-going basis’ any ‘outside interests which may give rise to an actual or perceived conflict of interest’.
Contact between civil servants and leading members of the Opposition should be ‘cleared with ministers’ and, fourthly, senior officials should ‘act in a way that reserves and retains confidence of ministers’.
Mr Quin said refusal to disclose details about any conversations or meetings meant all four rules may have been broken.
He told the Commons: ‘The party opposite talks about rules, they talk about transparency, they talk about standards in public. Given all the constant talk, it’s time they walked the walk.
‘Why are they refusing to publish when they met with Sue Gray? Why are they being evasive? Why can’t they tell us what they discussed, where they met and how often they met? Their refusals beg the question: exactly what is Labour trying to hide?’
He added: ‘There are now serious questions as to whether Labour, by acting fast and loose, undermined the rules and the impartiality of the civil service.
‘Those opposite must ask themselves: why did the leader of the Opposition covertly meet with a senior civil servant and why were those meetings not declared?
‘It is incumbent on everyone across the House to uphold and preserve the integrity and perceived impartiality of the civil service. This is about trust and it’s the Labour party that risks damaging that trust with the offer of this appointment.
‘But the Labour party can help restore that trust. They can do the right thing. They can publish the list of meetings between themselves and Sue Gray.’
Sir Robert Buckland, the former justice secretary, said he was ‘deeply disappointed’ by the fiasco.
Former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg accused Labour of ‘conniving in secret meetings’ with Ms Gray and said it ‘smashes to pieces the idea of an independent civil service’.
He added that it ‘undermines all her previous work’, including her Partygate report.
Former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke accused Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, of ‘defending the indefensible’ during the debate.
Veteran Tory MP Peter Bone said the fiasco had ‘done immense damage’ to the civil service and created a ‘constitutional crisis’ because ‘I don’t know if it will ever be able to recover’ its reputation for impartiality.
Deputy party chairman Lee Anderson said: ‘This latest grubby scandal from the Labour party has cast a dark stain on democracy… the Opposition leader should come out of hiding, come clean and publish the details of the meetings.’
Former minister Eddie Hughes said he felt ‘slightly unnerved’ that Ms Gray may have ‘simultaneously’ been holding talks with Labour while talking to him about sensitive matters.
But a defiant Ms Rayner was unapologetic, accusing Tory MPs of wasting parliamentary time to ‘indulge in the conspiracy theories of the former prime minister and his gang’.
She said it was the ‘sleaze-addicted’ Tory government that was the ‘biggest threat’ to democracy, adding: ‘What will they ask for next? A debate on moon landings, a Bill on draining Loch Ness or a public inquiry into whether the earth is flat?’
Sir Keir was asked nine times by LBC presenter Nick Ferrari yesterday when Labour first approached Ms Gray, but he refused to answer.
He simply said that he had been looking for a new chief of staff for several months after the previous one, Sam White, left in October.
He also insisted that ‘nothing improper’ had taken place and that Ms Gray would reveal when she was first approached when submitting her application to ACOBA, which was expected to be yesterday (MON).
A senior Labour source last night added: ‘We are waiting on the ACOBA process, which was always the intention.
‘The leak last week made it impossible for us not to say something. Now it’s right for the process to run its course.’
There is understood to be widespread anger among civil servants in Whitehall.
One source said: ‘She didn’t [apply to ACOBA] before Labour were briefing she’d been “appointed”. They quickly then changed their line to “offered” [the job]. The whole thing is well dodgy.’
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