Sue Gray should be able to take up her role as Labour chief of staff ahead of the next general election, according to figures close to the Whitehall body that vets external appointments of former ministers and officials.
The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments has said nothing about any likely sanction it will impose on Gray, who quit as a senior civil servant in March to work for Sir Keir Starmer.
Her appointment is controversial because in early 2022, then-prime minister Boris Johnson put Gray in charge of the “partygate” inquiry into illegal parties in Downing Street and Whitehall during Covid-19 lockdowns.
Labour on Wednesday said it had always expected that Gray would have to observe some “gardening leave”, but newspaper reports had suggested that Acoba could impose its maximum delay of two years. That would make it impossible for Gray to start working with him before the next general election, which is widely expected to be held next summer or autumn.
Gray began talks with Starmer in October last year, according to people familiar with the discussions, months after her partygate report was published in May.
However, people with knowledge of Acoba’s internal workings said Gray would instead probably face a delay of six or 12 months from when she left the civil service in March.
“A delay of over a year is highly unusual; it would effectively be saying ‘the move is not acceptable’,” said one person close to the body, which is chaired by Tory peer Lord Eric Pickles.
Another said it would be “entirely inconsistent with precedent” if Acoba handed Gray a delay of more than 12 months,
In March last year, Lord Eddie Udny-Lister, a senior adviser to Johnson, was asked by Acoba to delay his move to DP9, a planning advisory group, for just six months.
In March 2021, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, former head of the Royal Navy, was asked to wait 12 months before joining defence group BAE Systems despite the “potential risks of unfair advantage” owing to “his privileged access to the Ministry of Defence’s thinking”.
Acoba officials’ initial findings will be passed to the body’s eight committee members as early as next Tuesday, when they will have several days to deliberate. Gray will be given a chance to respond to the group’s recommendation — which she can challenge in person — before its final decision is published later this month.
Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden on Tuesday told the House of Commons that Gray had failed to co-operate with his own inquiry into her departure.
Dowden had intended to accuse Gray of breaching the civil service code but his statement was watered down after cabinet secretary Simon Case raised concerns, according to Whitehall figures.
A central element of the row is whether Gray entered talks with Labour this year while still working with the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team, even though her main job was at the housing department.
PET recently advised the politically sensitive investigation by the privileges committee into whether Johnson lied about his knowledge of partygate. But government insiders have clarified that Gray’s involvement with the ethics team in recent months was limited to helping vet public appointments.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s press secretary on Wednesday called on Starmer to release a timeline of his talks with Gray in order to “clear up” doubts about her appointment.
But a spokesperson for Starmer said Labour would only publish the timeline if Acoba did not do so, adding that it was “bizarre that the government is choosing to spend its time discussing a former civil servant 48 hours before polling day”.