LONDON — Britain’s Labor Party has a new idol and they can’t stop talking about her.
Almost three months ago, Labor leader Keir Starmer appointed career civil servant Sue Gray as his chief of staff. The appointment sent shockwaves through Westminster and was a surprising political move for a long-serving civil servant famous for her impartial but harsh verdicts as the British government’s former director of decency and ethics. To make matters worse in the eyes of his opponents, Gray played a leading role in the downfall of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson by overseeing an investigation into his administration’s anti-lockdown parties.
For all the furore over her appointment, key players in many wings of the Labor Party agree that she is a welcome force, professionalizing the way Labor runs as it eyes an election next year.
POLITICO spoke to more than a dozen officials and shadow ministers who have worked with Gray since his arrival. All were given anonymity to speak candidly about a senior colleague – but none were prepared to criticize her in any way.
The respect we have for him is almost akin to a cult. Her colleagues invariably describe her as a pragmatic operator – “not one to mince words,” according to a senior official – with good interpersonal skills. “She’s very kind and collegial and empathetic and has all these soft skills that people in politics don’t always have,” another official said. A second Shadow Cabinet minister described Gray as a “breath of fresh air”. A third said meetings had become more productive thanks to Gray’s “professionalism”.
Shadow cabinet ministers and Labor aides spontaneously raise her, praising her professionalism and collaborative working style. One official said staff were “flooding” wherever Gray worked in his first week – whether it was Parliament House or the party’s headquarters in Southwark.
Unlike many of his predecessors, chiefs of staff or party leaders, Gray is not the type to operate in the shadows. She has been spotted frequenting parliamentary cafes and caused a stir by turning up at major social occasions, including several cocktail parties at the Labor conference and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’ book launch – more than once dressed in ‘a superb leather jacket.
She serves in the shadow cabinet and has chaired daily morning meetings on the response to the war between Israel and Hamas. “That’s her bread and butter: organizing Whitehall in a crisis,” said one civil servant who worked with her.
“Sue spent the first few weeks asking a lot of questions about why we do things the way we do. It was impressive – and also quite difficult for some of us,” said a senior Starmer aide. They added that since she joined the team, “the change has been instantaneous.”
With Labor well ahead in the polls, Starmer is keen to project an image of competent Prime Minister. Gray, with all her years of experience at the top of the British government, could well be leading the country within a year and appears keen to show her new colleagues that she means business.
“She’s quite ruthless about timekeeping,” said one shadow minister – “a half-hour meeting is a half-hour meeting. »
From performer to unifier
As the Labor leader struggles to quell a revolt within his own camp over his party’s stance on the war between Israel and Hamas, officials are emphasizing Gray’s key role in handling the crisis.
Gray held conversations last week with lawmakers tempted to break from the party line and support an amendment calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Today, Labor officials say she played a role this week in bringing together the positions of the British and Scottish Labor parties on Israel and Gaza.
Scottish Labor leader Anas Sarwar was the most senior Labor politician to back a ceasefire last month, contravening Starmer’s stance which echoed the US and UK governments in calling for “humanitarian pauses” instead. than a ceasefire.
Scottish Labor on Monday presented an amendment in favor of an immediate ceasefire, but with reservations moderating this position, notably by recognizing that “for any ceasefire to work, all parties must “comply with it”, and expressing horror at Hamas’ declaration that they would continue to attack Israel. .
The amendment was drafted primarily by Sarwar’s team, with Shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray and policy director Luke Sullivan among those playing key roles in the discussions.
Two officials and an MP said Gray, who served as liaison between Scotland and London, had played a role as chief of staff. One of the officials said she had served as a “conduit” in discussions between the Starmer and Sarwar teams.
A second senior Labor figure confirmed this and said of Gray: “She is good at bringing people together. »
The power of women
Half a dozen female parliamentarians and aides said it was also striking that Gray had gained a fan base among some Labor women who believe the party’s upper echelons have been too male-dominated.
A Labor aide said he believed Gray would help Starmer’s upper circle break away from his “Labour groupthink”.
And a shadow minister said: “It ends a truly poor culture which has been dominated by boys with no experience outside a small Westminster circle, and (which) has ousted the politicians they despise. »
Gray is not the only senior civil servant with close links to the Labor leadership. Tom Scholar, who was sacked by Liz Truss as a senior Treasury official, is said to be among those unofficially advising shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.
Scholar and Reeves have been friends for 20 years. Reeves’ team says the suggestions Scholar advises him are “a little over the top,” but that the two men meet socially and sometimes discuss politics and economics.
Barely a month after taking office, Gray traveled to Scotland to campaign for Labor in the Rutherglen & Hamilton West by-election and spent polling day knocking on doors.
“She really enjoyed having long conversations with people on the doorstep,” said a Labor official who campaigned in that by-election. “She loved doors and was good at them,” said one deputy in attendance.
Gray was also seen campaigning in the Mid Bedfordshire by-election a few weeks ago. One Labor activist said she was taking a sort of “crash course in party politics”. Several officials said she was becoming more politically involved than expected.
His influence is already being compared to that of Labor campaign manager Morgan McSweeney, who has worked with Starmer since his 2020 leadership campaign and is now focused on winning the election. Gray was in the room where Starmer carried out his reshuffle on September 4, his first day on the job.
“Part of his role is to troubleshoot and keep the show on the road,” the Labor official quoted directly above said of Gray. They added that she oversees civil society engagement, policy development and governance, or in other words “anything non-electoral – that remains Morgan’s big domain”.
The first senior Labor figure quoted in this article said the question of whether Gray’s work would conflict with McSweeney’s had been “on people’s minds” before he joined, but “so far it hasn’t “There was no conflict between the two – that didn’t happen.” However, they added: “Whether this will continue, I have no idea. As a general election approaches, these two (roles) collide.