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A Gray area for Labour - a CalComms long read of the week in politics

It has been a busy week… Making headlines today is the Parliamentary Privileges Committee, which announced in a report it will investigate former PM Boris Johnson for several potential occasions of misleading Parliament. This comes a day after Sky News’ scoop that Labour Party Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, will appoint civil service mandarin (famously known for her Partygate inquiry) as his new Chief of Staff.

For context: such appointments made directly out of government must be approved at the discretion of the Prime Minister, under the advice of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA). This is the body that will assess Sue Gray’s profile, taking into account the sensitivity of the work that she undertook at the heart of Government, and advise on the length of time, if any, she must spend out of government before taking on a party-political role. The length of time in question could well be up to two years (hence why Starmer may have made this announcement approximately two years before the next election).

There are criticisms, many criticisms. The angle from those ardently opposed to this move, mostly Conservatives, is that it reflects badly on the impartiality of the civil service - which is already under fire from the same people accusing it of institutionally leaning to the political left. This has led many Boris Johnson allies to call Sue Gray’s famous Partygate inquiry a ‘hatchet job’, and a collusion between the civil service and the Labour Party that led to the former PM’s downfall.

There are however more moderate critics, who recognise that it is of course not unheard-of for a political party to hire advisors straight out of government. In many cases, such a hire can bring many benefits, and did so for the likes of Tony Blair and David Cameron. However, the questions this batch of critics are asking are: THIS civil servant, at THIS time? Implying that Gray’s proximity to scandal investigations and Ministerial appointment vetting under the Conservatives could give Labour an unfair electoral advantage, should her appointment be confirmed before the next election. These folks are also asking when Gray was first approached by Starmer to perform this role, and why there was such an abrupt resignation on Gray’s part too.

The Labour Leader also came under fire from his own backbenches. An anonymous comment from an unknown Labour MP highlighted that this appointment went directly against claims that the Party is not to be made complacent by Labour’s current polling position. The implication of such a comment being that Sue Gray, a person that values due process, bureaucracy, and government proceduralism more than anything, is a good choice as Chief of Staff for a post-election victory, but not one that can deliver said election victory beforehand.

There are also those who are not so critical. Proponents of the appointment say that this represents a seriousness on Starmer’s behalf to tackle ‘sleaze’ in government, given Gray’s laser-like focus and experience in rooting it out. There is also a lot to be said of Gray’s wider CV before Partygate delivered her fame. Gray has been praised by MPs on both sides of the aisle, by factions of every political party, for her robust service to the UK throughout her career - including from many Boris Johnson allies (and the former PM himself). Politics is a contact sport, and beyond the social media outrage, will voters really care?

The Gray affair comes the same week that Keir Starmer announced (in a far less chaotic manner) Newport East MP Jessica Morden as his new PPS, replacing Sharon Hodgeson who occupied the role for close to two years.

The Prime Minister will be happy that Labour will absorb the media pressure over the weekend, which will take the focus away from Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the backbench European Research Group (ERG) criticisms of Sunak’s recently announced Windsor Framework, announced on Monday to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Protocol, negotiated by former PM Boris Johnson, was a key pillar of his ‘oven-ready deal’ which led to the Conservatives’ trouncing of Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2019.

Since the deal was implemented however, the Government has come under fire, with claims that it has created too burdensome a regulatory climate for businesses to trade under. What many sectors have been calling for since 2019 is an understanding of mutual recognition between UK and EU products and services to make trade in Northern Ireland as frictionless as possible. Rishi Sunak, in his shiny new Windsor Framework, seeks to remedy this issue while at the same time preserving Northern Ireland’s relationship to the United Kingdom. Broadly, the deal has gone down well among the PM’s allies and Labour - but the ERG are yet to make a concrete statement on the matter while the group awaits legal advice. Waiting in the wings is also one Boris Johnson MP, who has already indicated that he would not vote for the framework …although the former PM’s motivations may more concern the protection of his legacy than anything else.

In other news this week…

SNP exodus on the cards? Some tremors have been felt north of the border throughout the week. Following the climactic resignation of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, long-time Deputy First Minister and SNP veteran John Swinney also tendered his resignation. Opponents of the SNP have claimed that the house of cards is slowly falling, which will heavily impact the campaign for Independence. Meanwhile, the SNP leadership race still rumbles on, with Kate Forbes remaining as favourite to take over the top job and former First Minister and ALBA Leader, Alex Salmond, taking to the waves to criticise Hamza Yousef for his lack of clarity around the issue of gay marriage.

On a gentle simmer under all of the news bubbles the Oakshott / Hancock fight to the death. In a somewhat ironic lesson in trust for the former Health Secretary, he found himself at the sharp end of scrutiny this week - as journalist Isobelle Oakshott leaked hundreds of thousands of WhatsApp messages shared between key players in Government throughout the pandemic. With no doubt plenty more revelations to be offered-up by the Telegraph, this week alone exposed messages where Ministers and senior civil servants attacked unions, mocked families in hotel isolation, and made light of broadcaster Piers Morgan’s bout of COVID-19.

Lots happening in SW1, one take away however is that the Prime Minister looks to benefit from the continued media focus on Matt Hancock, as the UK looks poised to enter another tumultuous period of strikes in March.

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