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Civil servant dubbed ‘most powerful woman in Britain’ drafted to help save the union

08 Apr 2021 3 minute read
Picture by Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC (OGL v1.0).

A civil servant who was once dubbed the “most powerful woman in Britain” has been drafted in to help save the union.

In a major Whitehall move, Boris Johnson has approved the appointment of Sue Gray as the new Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office, leading on the Union and the Constitution. She will take up the role later this month.

Gray is currently Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance in the Northern Ireland Executive and was previously the Head of Ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012-2018.

She was dubbed the “most powerful woman in Britain” in a profile on the Conservative Home website.

It refers to a passage in the memoir of the Liberal Democrat David Laws of the 2010-15 coalition government, in which he related a conversation over breakfast in the Number Ten canteen with Oliver Letwin, David Cameron’s policy chief.

Letwin suggested that the real power did not lie with the Prime Minister, or with the Cabinet Secretary.

He said: “It took me precisely two years before I realised finally who it is that runs Britain. Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray, the Head of Ethics or something in the Cabinet Office.

“Unless she agrees, things just don’t happen. Cabinet reshuffles, departmental reorganisations, the whole lot – it’s all down to Sue Gray.

“Nothing moves in Whitehall unless Sue says so. She gets to censor our memoirs too! Our poor, deluded voters think the Prime Minister holds the reins of power. Wrong!

“The truth is our real leader, Sue Gray, sits at a small desk in the Cabinet Office. If only the Chinese and the Russians knew! They have probably been bugging all the wrong phones for years.”


One Whitehall insider told Conservative Home: “She heads Whitehall’s equivalent of the Office of the Holy Inquisition. If Jeremy Heywood [the Cabinet Secretary] is the Pope she leads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. She defines what is heretical.”

A civil servant said: “She does a completely thankless task. I’m a great fan of hers. If politicians are incompetent at reaching a verdict about politicians’ ethical standards, someone has to do the dirty work.

“She’s always wanted to escape from that job, but for some reason she never can. Anything difficult or complicated, so it might be unpopular, Jeremy Heywood will pass to her to deal with. People blame the messenger.”

The big civil service reinforcement fulfils a recommendation in the Dunlop Review, the report on relations between the UK Government and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It called the intergovernmental relationship between the four national governments “not fit for purpose”, and recommended that any UK Government spending be clearly marked with their branding.

It also suggests creating a senior Cabinet position with specific responsibility for the constitutional integrity and operation of the United Kingdom, with a status equivalent to one of the Great Offices of State (the Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, or Home Secretary).

The review calls for a staff interchange program between the civil services in Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland.

The report also recommends the creation of a UK Intergovernmental Council to improve communication between the nations.

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