Sue Gray, the investigator of lockdown-busting parties in Boris Johnson’s government, looks set to join Labour as Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.
The Whitehall veteran quit the Cabinet Office to take on the party political job, prompting criticism by some Tory MPs, who said it throws civil service impartiality into question.
Thrust into the limelight when she took over the probe into coronavirus rule-breaking at No 10 in 2021, Ms Gray went from an influential but little-known arbiter of conduct in government to a household name within months.
She stepped in to lead the investigation after cabinet secretary Simon Case – her boss – recused himself following allegations that his own office held a Christmas event amid a lockdown.
“Waiting for Sue Gray” became a well-known refrain as the nation braced itself for her highly-anticipated report.
An initial dossier, published in January 2022, included several strong criticisms of Downing Street’s drinking culture, but was short on details about the parties as it was hampered by an investigation launched by the Metropolitan Police.
But her full report in May 2022 proved to be a bombshell. It detailed events at which officials drank so much they were sick, sang karaoke, became involved in altercations and abused security and cleaning staff at a time when millions of people across the country were unable to see friends and family.
She criticised “failures of leadership and judgment” in No 10 and said “the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility”.
Six weeks later, Mr Johnson was forced out of office by his own cabinet and Conservative MPs.
While Ms Gray, in her mid-60s, is said to shun the media spotlight, some politicians have gone so far as to suggest the former publican is the “real leader” of the UK.
In her former role as director-general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018, she is said to have overseen cabinet reshuffles, served as a guiding hand in compiling honours lists, and even signed off political memoirs before their publication.
The diplomacy skills required for such a sensitive role were honed in a location far removed from Whitehall, when Ms Gray and her country and western singer husband Bill Conlon bought and ran a pub in Newry, Northern Ireland, at the height of the Troubles in the late 1980s.
During that time, Ms Gray once faced down IRA paramilitaries who attempted to hijack her car, bluntly refusing to exit her vehicle when they ordered her to do so, friends told the Belfast Telegraph.
Reportedly dubbed “deputy God” by some in the civil service, Ms Gray, who is said to be a cat lover, is no stranger to a standards investigation, having led two previous reviews into the behaviour of cabinet ministers.
Polly Mackenzie, who served as policy director in the Cabinet Office under former deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg, said Ms Gray knew what holding the power to end careers felt like.
“She knows everything that anyone has ever done wrong,” the chief executive of think tank Demos told BBC Radio 4 for a profile of the civil servant.
“So that means when it comes to decisions that might make or break a political career, she can be incredibly powerful.”
Ms Gray’s reviews of senior cabinet ministerial behaviour in the past have led to high-profile sackings and resignations.
Former prime minister Theresa May tasked her with investigating her close ally Damian Green, over allegations that he had lied about the presence of pornographic images on his Commons computer.
She also spearheaded the so-called “plebgate” inquiry into claims that then-chief whip Andrew Mitchell insulted police officers on Downing Street.
David Laws, who was a minister in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government, said David Cameron’s former policy chief, Oliver Letwin, once told him that unless Ms Gray agreed, “things just don’t happen” in Whitehall.
Some critics have suggested she has been influential in blocking freedom of information requests, with former BBC Newsnight journalist Chris Cook reporting in 2015 that she was “notorious for her determination not to leave a document trail” and had assisted departments to “fight disclosures”.
According to her Government biography, Ms Gray started working for the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s following her stint behind the bar in Northern Ireland during a “career break”.
After her time as head of ethics in the Cabinet Office, she served as the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland from 2018 to 2021.
She reportedly refused to have a leaving do when she left the Belfast office, to adhere to the lockdown rules.
After May 2021, she was back in the Cabinet Office as second permanent secretary with responsibilities in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.