Partygate investigator Sue Gray’s “unprecedented” planned move to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s office may have breached civil service rules, ministers have said.
Paymaster General Jeremy Quin raised in the Commons on Monday four areas where the senior civil servant may have fallen foul during the “exceptional situation”.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner accused Conservative MPs of pursuing “conspiracy theories” spread by former prime minister Boris Johnson and his allies.
Labour confirmed last week that Ms Gray plans to become Sir Keir’s chief of staff, after the move was first reported by Sky News.
Answering an urgent question, Mr Quin said: “The House will recognise this is an exceptional situation, it is unprecedented for a serving permanent secretary to resign to seek to take up a senior position working for the leader of the opposition.”
He said there are four rules or guidance for civil servants that are “pertinent”, including informing the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba).
“The rules state that approval must be obtained prior to a job offer being announced. The Cabinet Office has not as yet been informed that the relevant notification to Acoba has been made,” he said.
Other rules relevant to Ms Gray’s plans, he said, include impartiality, declaration of outside interests and that contact with opposition parties should be cleared with ministers.
“Regardless of the details of the specific situation, I understand why members of this House and eminent commentators outside have raised concerns,” he added.
Ms Rayner accused the “sleaze-addicted” Tories of being “so self-obsessed that they are using parliamentary time to indulge in the conspiracy theories of the former prime minister and his gang”.
“What will they ask for next, a Westminster hall debate on the moon landings, the bill of dredging the Loch Ness, or a public inquiry into whether the earth is flat?” she asked.
“This debate says more about the delusions of the modern Conservative Party than it does anything else.”
Arch Johnson loyalist Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested Ms Gray’s plans “smash to pieces the idea of an independent civil service”, claiming she was “conniving in secret meetings with the party of opposition”.
The Conservative, who was Mr Johnson’s Commons leader, suggested the move would “undermine all her previous work”, particularly Ms Gray’s investigation into lockdown breaches in No 10.
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle opened the debate on Monday by saying he was “quite surprised” by the “same wording” and “same length of sentence” of many of the requests for a debate.
“I won’t be moved by mass lobbying,” he said.
The Cabinet Office is looking into the circumstances surrounding Ms Gray’s resignation as second permanent secretary in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Allegations that Mr Johnson lied to Parliament with his denials of lockdown-flouting parties are being investigated by the cross-party Privileges Committee.
If found in contempt and suspended for more than 10 days, he could ultimately be forced to face a by-election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.
Sir Keir said he had “absolutely no contact” with Ms Gray while she was investigating rule breaches across Downing Street and Whitehall.
He declined to say when he first contacted her about joining his team when pressed repeatedly, saying only that “it was recent” and after his former chief of staff left in October last year.
“I’ve been looking for a chief of staff for a little while now, but Sue will lay that out, but there’s nothing improper at all,” the Labour leader said during a phone-in on LBC Radio.
He said the appointment is yet to be finalised, adding “we haven’t agreed terms” yet.
Ms Gray had been expected to submit a formal request on Monday to take on the role when she puts in her application to Acoba, Parliament’s anti-corruption watchdog.
However, Labour did not say whether she had made this move and Acoba declined to comment, saying “all applications are treated fairly and confidentially”.
Acoba can advise waiting periods before civil servants start other jobs and the Prime Minister ultimately makes the final recommendation.
Though it is not legally binding, Ms Gray is expected to await the decision before taking up the role.
Sir Keir also described as “desperate” Mr Johnson’s attempts to portray Ms Gray as biased, as he praised her “integrity” and “delivery in government”.