The woman who could end Boris Johnson’s career is shrouded in mystery – but her activities in Northern Ireland are revealing
Mystique surrounds Sue Gray as lies surround the man whose career now rests in her hands — if even she could now save him, that is.
The Whitehall mandarin has spent two significant sojourns in Northern Ireland, during which her actions provided clues as to how she is now operating, and what that might mean not just for Boris Johnson’s future but for the credibility of her inquiry into the prime minister.
Ms Gray joined the civil service in the late 1970s, but just a few years later her first highly unusual move across the Irish Sea came as a “career break” in which she ran a pub.
That would be eye-raisingly unorthodox for a young civil servant in 1980s London even without the added detail that the pub was close to one of the most dangerous parts of Northern Ireland.
Ms Gray became landlady of The Cove bar, an isolated pub which has now gone but which sat about two miles outside Newry on the Hilltown Road. It was halfway to Mayobridge, six miles from the border and five miles from Narrow Water, where a few years earlier the British Army suffered its greatest loss of life during the Troubles when an IRA attack killed 18 soldiers.
The pub was in a communally mixed area a few miles from the edge of South Armagh, home of the IRA’s most capable and most impenetrable units. The nature, timing and location of the Whitehall official’s move to Newry led to speculation that she had an intelligence role.
In a rare interview with BBC political correspondent Gareth Gordon last May, Ms Gray was asked if she was a spy. Smiling, she said: “If I was a spy, I’d be a pretty poor spy if people are talking about me being a spy”.
Another way of putting it would be that if Ms Gray was gathering intelligence for years while working in a Newry pub in the 1980s, she was a very brave person.
Ms Gray returned to London and was fast-tracked through the civil service ranks. Despite having missed several years, she would become one of Whitehall’s most powerful figures.
As deputy to the most powerful official, Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, she was known as “Deputy God”. At the fulcrum of power, she advised on individuals’ suitability to either attain or retain key posts in the government.
And then, suddenly, she re-emerged in Northern Ireland. A year after the RHI scandal had seen Stormont collapse, it was announced that Ms Gray was coming to Belfast.
Even coming to take over the Northern Ireland Civil Service would have been a less powerful role, but Ms Gray was a rung further down the ladder, becoming permanent secretary at the Department of Finance.
It was a curious move for a figure described in London just a few years earlier as “the most powerful civil servant you’ve never heard of”. But there had been dismay in Whitehall as mandarins read reports of what was emerging from the RHI Inquiry.
Whether by accident or design, the unorthodox move meant that Whitehall had at the heart of Stormont a figure it trusted — and someone who immediately set about reforming the civil service with her trademark energy and ability to get things done.
In the absence of ministers, Ms Gray held unusual power for a civil servant. Some officials were uncomfortable in that role, but Ms Gray embraced it — and was good at it.
She set up a Twitter account and continually posted about her work, posed for photos at events which a minister would normally attend, and impressed many outsiders with her enthusiasm for shaking up the Stormont system.
Inevitably, not everyone in the civil service she was reforming warmed to her style, and so criticisms must be seen in the context of an institution requiring painful surgery which inevitably would annoy some of those being cut out by the surgeon.
But that was only part of the story, and what happened next has implications for Ms Gray’s current investigation.
Two years ago, I obtained documentation which showed that Ms Gray’s words did not always match her actions.
She had always been described as highly secretive and unenthusiastic about releasing information under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act. Yet despite that — or perhaps because of it — she had been put in charge of opening up Stormont and had talked effusively about the importance of transparency.
However, documentation showed she had been responsible for a process which wrongly suppressed the release of potentially embarrassing material.
Internal emails revealed several occasions where she was either responsible for a decision to — or attempted to — prevent the publication of material which under the FoI law should have been released but might have caused her some awkwardness.
Ironically, the information she sought to prevent becoming public was in relation to a powerful new role she had created to “champion openness and transparency”.
In response to an FoI request about how the job was created, the department initially blacked out key sections of the documentation, including parts of a letter from the Civil Service Commissioners, the body responsible for ensuring that civil service appointments involve fair and open competition.
It claimed that the letter did not relate to the request or was personal data. However, after obtaining the letter, it was clear to me that parts of it did relate to the request — and were critical of her.
Ms Gray personally signed off on withholding that information. What happened next is instructive about how she operates.
After the original FoI refusal was appealed, Ms Gray took personal interest in what was released. However, the documents show that she was not arguing internally for greater transparency, but for the withholding of what other civil servants wanted to release.
That only became apparent because of an unusual slip-up. An effort to black out sections revealing her actions was bungled and it was possible to read what was behind the black censor’s pen.
Even when a civil servant argued that the information should be released, Ms Gray proposed a delay until another civil servant returned to work and wanted a verbal discussion — which was not recorded. Her department said at the time: “We reject any assertion that the redacting of information was for any other reasons than compliance with the FoI legislation.”
It admitted it had made “an error” in withholding some of the information but said that although Ms Gray was the decision-maker, she had not even seen the information and the real decision was taken by a more junior official.
After two years running the department alone, in January 2020 she returned to working under a minister. The minister was Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy, a former IRA man.
Ms Gray appeared doggedly loyal to her minister, batting for him on several issues in front of Stormont committees. Every Stormont party except Sinn Fein had endorsed a private member’s bill by Jim Allister which would have led to criminal sanctions if some of the RHI scandal behaviour was repeated. Ms Gray had instead prepared a code — which improved on the existing rules but lacked the teeth of legislation — and argued that was sufficient.
When the pandemic struck, Mr Murphy became entangled in a damaging controversy over his claim to have secured a huge quantity of personal protective equipment (PPE) from China via the Irish Government.
The PPE never materialised and Mr Murphy’s claims about it were investigated by the Assembly’s Finance Committee.
When it asked for documentation relating to the issue, key documents were withheld. That was ultimately Mr Murphy’s decision, but there is little in Ms Gray’s past to suggest she would have been pushing him to release it.
Appearing before the committee alongside Mr Murphy, she defended how the situation had been handled.
Two months after Mr Murphy arrived in the department, it emerged that Ms Gray was serving two masters — but that had never been made public. At a time when Stormont and Whitehall ministers were in dispute about funding and other issues, it was clarified that Ms Gray was only on secondment to the Department of Finance and had retained some responsibilities within the Cabinet Office.
The following year, she applied to become head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, but that was blocked after an interview with Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill. Who blocked it has never been made clear, but this week Politico quoted an unnamed DUP official who claimed it was Sinn Fein.
Months later, Ms Gray left to return to Whitehall, going from working for an Irish republican minister to a new role in which she would be responsible for strengthening the Union.
There are two threads running through Ms Gray’s career. The first is power, and the second is secrecy. Now facing her biggest decision and nearing the end of her career, she is a dangerous investigator for Mr Johnson to face.
Power can conceal, but as Robert Caro observed it can also reveal. Climbing the ladder to become US President, Lyndon Johnson carefully hid his views about civil rights until in a position to enact historic legislation, stunning many of his colleagues from the southern states.
There is nothing to suggest that Ms Gray is partisan in a party political sense. But there is peril in Mr Johnson facing someone who cannot be bullied and who is unlikely to climb any higher in the civil service, especially when the facts of his claims about the Downing Street parties appear so unsympathetic to a neutral observer.
And yet coming to the right conclusion, whatever that is, will not be enough here. In an age where the powerful are distrusted and claims of conspiracies abound, a figure so close to the apex of the British establishment will instinctively be distrusted by some people.
If the secrecy which has surrounded Ms Gray throughout her career endures into this inquiry, it could undermine her conclusions. Many people will not be content to see the answer but will demand to see her working out. If she shows them that, it will be breaking with the habit of a lifetime.