BY offering Sue Gray a job as his chief of staff, Sir Keir Starmer has finally out Starmered himself. I’m convinced the idea of recruiting the Second Permanent Secretary – famous only for investigating Boris Johnson’s covid and puking parties in Downing Street – must have begun life as a gag line in the Labour leader’s private office.

After her name became synonymous with official condemnation of the ­excesses, ­evasions and entitlement of the ­Johnson lockdown years, you can imagine the ­exchange over a late-night beer and curry in Labour HQ. “We should offer her a job!” someone quips. After the laughter subsides, a thoughtful expression shrouds Sir Keir’s face: “Well why not?”

A time may come when the leaders of the UK’s main political parties don’t dread ­seeing their predecessors quoted in the papers. This isn’t one of those weeks. The political fate of Boris Johnson has always been an unexploded bomb under Rishi ­Sunak’s government.

The National: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak holds a Q&A session with local business leaders during a visit to Coca-Cola HBC in Lisburn, Co Antrim in Northern Ireland. Mr Sunak is visiting Northern Ireland to sell the Windsor Framework deal secured with the European

The parliamentary investigation into the ex-PM stepped up last week, with the Standards Committee serving public notice on Johnson about the ambit of its inquiry into the candour of his House of Commons answers on the social life of Number 10 during lockdown, including what he knew, and when he knew it.

But that’s just the beginning. Johnson’s still unpublished resignation honours list – which is rumoured to give gongs to ­everyone from Nadine Dorries and former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre to the ­remaining members of his family who haven’t already been elevated to the House of Lords – has all the hallmarks of a cronyism and client government row waiting to happen.

Meanwhile, controversy continues to burble under about Johnson’s r­elationship with embattled BBC chair Richard Sharp. The former Goldman Sachs banker and Tory donor was involved in brokering ­introductions which helped give Johnson access to an £800,000 credit facility, just weeks before Johnson decided Sharp was just the man to lead the BBC board and ­safeguard the broadcaster’s ­independence from government. None of this was ­disclosed publicly at the time.

There also remains every sign that ­Johnson is unreconciled to his resignation, embittered about the circumstances which forced it, and entertains thoughts of a ­redemptive return to high office.

Right, left or centre – a lot of the ­running in modern politics seems to be based on doing and saying things to ­provoke your opponents into making ­idiots of ­themselves. If that was the plan – then the Tory press and Tory party have richly rewarded Labour for their inspired recruitment decision.

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Their conniptions have been a ­wonder to behold. The Daily Mail promptly ran with the headline “Is this proof the ­Partygate probe was a Labour plot?” The response from some Conservative MPs to Gray’s new gig has – if anything – been even less proportionate.

Outrage is the public sentiment, but behind their masks of fury, you can see the twinkle in either eye which tells you Boris-backers are secretly delighted to have this opportunity to try to discredit his critics and so redeem his reputation.

Successive Tory MPs have doubled down on paranoid claims Gray was some kind of Labour sleeper haunting the ­corridors of Whitehall, watching and ­waiting for the moment a future ­Conservative Prime Minister would ask her to conduct an independent review of the karaoke and wine cooler culture in Number 10.

Johnson has smiled on these claims, suggesting to the BBC that “if you told me all the stuff that I now know” he would have “cross-examined her more closely about her independence”.

The National: Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg leaves Downing Street, London, after the final Cabinet meeting with Liz Truss as Prime Minister before she formally resigns. Picture date: Tuesday October 25, 2022..

His allies and outriders have ­inevitably gone far further. Our old friend Jacob Rees-Mogg told the media last week that Gray’s new posting “blows apart the idea of civil service impartiality” and ­“invalidates her Partygate report”.

The praying mantis can sit motionless for hours, waiting for its prey to blunder into its clutches. They have nothing on the ambush predator which is Sue Gray, whos plan to destroy the political career of Boris Johnson began in the 1970s when she joined the civil service straight from school, and the future Prime Minister was still at Eton, explaining to his classmates how he wanted to be “world king.”

In this Tory dreamscape, Gray has been reframed as “orchestrator and ­investigator” of the inquiry, acting as the plausibly-deniable official linchpin in “a left-wing stitch up” by “a socialist cabal of Boris haters who were delighted to ­remove him”.

We’re back to ignoring the fact that Gray’s report into the drunken and ­unlawful shenanigans of the Johnson Downing Street lockdown years was not the political death sentence much of Fleet Street had been anticipating.

The National: Sue Gray

We’re also left with fascinating ­questions of how precisely Gray was able to coordinate the waves of Tory MPs who resigned their ministerial posts and submitted ­letters to the 1922 ­Committee calling for a leadership ­election isn’t ­explained. ­Presumably she was also ­responsible for mobilising that noted Trotskyist front group – the ­Metropolitan Police – to investigate the former and ­current PM for their compliance with Covid rules.

If Sue Gray has even half the organisational talents attributed to her by her Tory critics, then Labour has recruited one of the most terrifyingly effective political ­operators since Cardinal Richelieu.

Most of these critiques are paranoid fantasies or transparently cynical ­gambits to try to resurrect Johnson’s political ­career. But putting Sue Gray at the heart of Starmer’s campaign is an expression of a different kind of cynicism from the ­Labour leader.

You can see why the logic of the appointment appeals to Starmer. It’s the story of a public-minded public servant ­deciding to step up, entering politics to help restore decency and honour to ­public life. And then that public-minded public servant ­decides to hire Sue Gray. The ­appointment chimes with everything he’s told us about his ­conception of himself, his role, and what he brings to politics.

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Starmer's platform is often criticised as back-to-the-future Blairism. So far, we’ve certainly seen a lot of the triangulation New Labour used to specialise in. We’ve seen the vigorous attempt to capitalise on the former director of Public Prosecution’s law and order credentials by promising crackdowns, outflanking even the Conservatives on the authoritarian right. We’ve seen everything from caginess on immigration to full blown dog whistle remarks.

But New Labour also conceived itself as an innovative force in government, as disruptors, challenging the status quo, challenging an unwieldy and old-fashioned government apparatus. Tony Blair would never have dreamed of appointing a career Whitehall mandarin as his chief of staff.

Starmerism has none of this energy – and none of this confidence. Sir Keir’s dearest wish seems to be to “make Britain sedate again”. What’s on offer is a former state prosecutor as PM, a former Bank of England economist lined up to helm the Treasury, and a civil service lifer (barring her stint pulling pints in Northern Ireland) pulling all the strings behind the scenes.

Given her experience, there’s no doubt Gray can give the Labour leader an ­insider’s rundown on how ­Whitehall ­operates, but most political leaders look for more from their backroom ­Machiavellis than a lifetime’s devotion to the official protocols of Whitehall.

Drafting Gray is just the latest ­manifestation of his basically ­antipolitical diagnosis of Labour’s route back into power, championing managerialism and technocratic government, actively suspicious of anything more populist, participative or mobilising.

The Glasgow historian Dr Ewan Gibbs put it pithily on Twitter this week. ­“Labour is essentially now running as the party of the state bureaucracy”. The message – yet again – is that the Starmer regime would depoliticise politics, and expects to win political credit for it.