(Bloomberg) — High-ranking civil servant Sue Gray is back in the news after she resigned and was offered a job working for UK Labour Party leader Keir Starmer as his chief of staff.
Few people outside of Westminster had heard of Gray before 2021, but she became one of the most talked-about figures in UK politics when she was put in charge of the investigation into allegations of rule-breaking parties at Downing Street during the coronavirus lockdowns.
Conservative Party MPs have expressed anger about her potential appointment, saying that it casts doubt on the impartiality of those investigations.
So who is Sue Gray? We look at what’s known about her.
Powerful civil service career
Gray started her career in the civil service in the 1970s, joining straight out of school. She worked in several departments, including a secondment to the Northern Ireland government, but spent most of her career in the Cabinet Office, which she joined in the 1990s.
Over the decades, Gray became so senior in the civil service that she was sometimes referred to as the UK’s real leader. Former minister David Laws recalled a conversation with Oliver Letwin, another former minister, in which he said: “Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray.”
In 2015, Gray was described by the BBC as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of” when she was working as the director-general of the Cabinet Office’s Propriety and Ethics Team. This team had a wide-ranging remit which included checking and approving memoirs written by politicians to check they hadn’t revealed “anything unhelpful.” It also included doing a “first sift” on potential appointments to the House of Lords and checking documents before publication. This gave Gray an “astounding” level of influence in the government, according to the BBC.
Before the lockdown parties report, Gray was in charge of several other official investigations. In 2017 she led the inquiry into minister Damian Green’s conduct towards women, the findings of which led to him being told to resign by then Prime Minister Theresa May. Previously, she led an inquiry into former Defence Secretary Liam Fox and the “plebgate” investigation into Andrew Mitchell. In 2011 she also gave Prime Minister David Cameron the all-clear over an £140,000 ($168,000) purchase of land from his neighbour Lord Chadlington, the chief executive of PR firm Huntsworth.
Gray was handed the investigation into the No. 10 parties after her boss, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, recused himself after it was claimed that his own office held a lockdown gathering. Her full report, published last May, included extensive details of parties featuring karaoke machines, birthday cakes, “excessive alcohol consumption”, fights and vomiting, while rules were in place that meant the rest of the UK was unable to see friends and family.
In the report, Gray said “the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility.” Public reaction to the report was one of the several pressures on former Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he resigned several weeks later.
Pub landlady with passion for cats and country singers
Gray took the unusual step of taking a career break from the civil service to run a pub in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in the 1980s. She ran Cove Bar, with her country singer husband Bill Conlon, in Newry, a border town.
While running the pub, Gray once “faced down” IRA paramilitaries who were trying to hijack her car, according to the Belfast Telegraph, flat-out refusing their orders to get out of her car.
She is also said to be a fan of cats. A Twitter account in her name regularly retweets pictures of mouser cats employed by the government for pest control, making judgments on which one should be “cat of the week.”