It should go without saying at this point but obviously bears repeating, the Sue Gray report didn’t sink Boris Johnson’s premiership and it’s frankly ahistorical to suggest otherwise.
The idea that a report on headed note-paper, which quickly faded from the popular consciousness, had more of an impact on Johnson’s relationship with his parliamentary party than a daily barrage of headline pictures of him swigging Estrella while the country was in lockdown (and while he appointed known abusers to positions of power) is frankly too ridiculous to take seriously.
Despite being daft, the proposition parroted by the last of Johnson’s holdouts has prompted one interesting question: If Sue Gray hadn’t authored the report, but still had been appointed by Starmer, would this news have generated any raised eyebrows? I think the answer is no, it would’ve just been another senior civil servant going to work for a political party, like when David Cameron and Tony Blair made similar hires. But this tells us something about both the state of British politics and Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. It tells us that beyond briefing that he will get rid of Simon Case, Keir Starmer has no meaningful plans for civil service reform, and will in fact maintain many of its worst instincts.
The revolving door between the newspapers, civil service, political parties and the public affairs sector is well documented, but rarely critically interrogated. Part of this is surely due to the size of British Politics and the comparatively low amounts of money floating about to animate it, in a niche field you will find that many people have invariably done a number of jobs with some of them having contradictory end goals after all. Part of it can simply be put down to the chummy relationships of those who work in Westminster, which can be best seen in the gushing congratulations of many supposedly serious journalists when their colleague announces they’re moving to lead a centre right think-tank, or become Political Editor for a conspiracy-peddling news channel. The fact that this is something that flies by relatively unremarked upon in the mainstream has always been troubling, and the latest chapter in the Sue Gray saga is merely another chapter in this saga.
Some may deem this naive, but regardless of seniority or notoriety, it is wrong for civil servants who used to run the permanent government to jump ship and immediately try to become the elected government. It’s a proposition where if the parties were reversed any number of people, as they do whenever ‘Tory Hack X becomes Director General of the BBC’, would rightly be crying foul play, and they certainly have done as the latest sorry BBC saga has drawn into focus.
Aside from it just feeling wrong, it’s difficult not to see the incestuous hiring practices of British politics as a huge part of the reason why groupthink pervades in the manner it does. Rather than hiring on the basis of skill or expertise, people are employed on the basis of career checkpoints being passed and suitably impressive department badges being present on CVs. Needless to say this is why the figures, mainly journalists, crying foul at the outcry over Gray’s appointment, are largely doing so on the basis of self interest in the current system, and also why most prospective PMs end up pitching one version or another of Civil Service reform.
In this instance, Starmer’s positioning is instructive, where we can infer that his lack of interest in Civil Service reform followed by hiring one of Whitehall’s ultimate insiders betrays the thinking of an establishment man entirely uninterested in the manner in which the levers of power in this country operate. Instead, he is assured that if simply the right people are in place to operate and guide the machinery, then a more equal, better country will naturally form as a result, a position that puts him at odds with both Blair and Johnson respectively.
It’s hard to say what the Gray appointment will look like in practice, the Chief of Staff position is as much defined by the post holder and the Leader they report to. Rumours questioning Gray’s effectiveness, or lack thereof, will be tested by time. However at the most basic level, it is clear that running a government department and running an opposition political party are two very different jobs with diametrically opposed overarching goals.
The histories of Starmer’s Labour Party will ultimately reveal the impact of this appointment in the long term. What it tells us now, as if we needed much reminding, is that Starmer and company value those that animate the status quo, and that should alarm those of us who wish to fundamentally alter it.