'Nothing improper at all': Sir Keir Starmer refuses ten times to say when he first approached Sue Gray over job

6 March 2023, 09:49 | Updated: 6 March 2023, 10:14

Starmer refuses to answer when he first asked Sue Gray to work for him

By Asher McShane

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer this morning repeatedly refused to give a detailed timeline about when he first approached Sue Gray for the job as his chief of staff.

Speaking to Nick Ferrari on Call Keir on LBC this morning about the controversial appointment, Sir Keir refused ten times to say exactly when he first contacted her about the role, only to say he had been looking for someone to do the job for 'some time.'

He said Ms Gray will set out when she was approached by Labour as part of her leaving process.

He told Nick: "I had absolutely no contact with Sue Gray during the preparation of her report when she was writing or anything like that, so the whole suggestion is a complete and utter nonsense."

Sir Keir Starmer took questions over Sue Gray's appointment this morning
Sir Keir Starmer took questions over Sue Gray's appointment this morning. Picture: LBC/Alamy

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Sir Keir did not indicate exactly when he first approached Ms Gray about becoming his chief of staff, saying: "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."

He added: "Sue Gray is known for her integrity, she's known for her delivery in government, and those are two things that I think are essential to an incoming Labour government if we get the privilege of being voted in next year."

"If you look it’s a dwindling group of people around him that are still supporting him [Boris Johnson]. I had no contact with Sue during that entire period as you would expect.

Nick asked Sir Keir when he first contacted her about the role six times and he said it was for Ms Gray to ‘lay out’ the timeframe if she saw fit.

He said he had been looking for a chief of staff ‘for a number of weeks now.’

“She’s not a friend, I don’t mix with her, I’m not in the same social circles or anything like that,” he said.

The Labour leader has faced questions after it emerged that Ms Gray, who received national prominence for her role investigating lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street, will become his chief of staff.

She is expected to submit a formal request on Monday to take on the role when she puts in her application to Parliament's anti-corruption watchdog, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba).

Boris Johnson and allies have leapt on the appointment as part of efforts to discredit the Privileges Committee inquiry into whether he lied to the House of Commons over lockdown breaches.

Speaking on Sunday, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris praised the "integrity" of Ms Gray, who he said he has worked with in the past.

But he also sought to put pressure on Sir Keir, telling Sophy Ridge On Sunday on Sky News: "This is where Keir can help out his new chief of staff by just publishing all the messages and things he might have had with her at that point in time.

"I've dealt with Sue Gray in the Northern Ireland Office as a civil servant.

"I see her as a woman of integrity as well. So I have no issue with that.

"I think Keir can clear this up in seconds by saying this is what we talked about at that time, there's nothing to see here."

Today was the first time Sir Keir has taken questions about when conversations began with Ms Gray, who is expected to await the decision of the Acoba before starting the role.

Parliament's anti-corruption watchdog can advise waiting periods before civil servants take on other jobs and the Prime Minister ultimately makes the final decision.

On Saturday, Ms Gray received backing from a former Conservative Cabinet Office minister as Francis Maude said he had never the "slightest reason to question either her integrity or her political impartiality".