My encounter with Sue Gray

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

I only voted in one no-confidence motion. The leader was Iain Duncan Smith, and it was a bit awkward. I spent hours every week helping Iain with Prime Minister’s Questions, and felt sorry for him. At the same time, his leadership was a disaster. Indeed, Tony Blair was going easy on him in the chamber just to keep him alive. So what to do? On the morning of the vote, I conferred with two other new MPs in the PMQ team — David Cameron and Boris Johnson. We all agreed he had to go and swore a pact. So off I went to cast my ballot. A few hours later, the deputy chief whip asked me if I’d seen Boris. He was the only MP who hadn’t voted yet. I set off to look and saw him heading for the gates out of Westminster. Flustered, he said he didn’t have time to vote as he had to go and edit The Spectator. I told him that was a ridiculous excuse. So he went to do the deed. Later that evening we both saw David. ‘That was hard to do,’ I said, ‘but necessary for the party.’ Boris agreed. David was a little sheepish: ‘I voted for him.’ ‘What? Why?’ said Boris. ‘I don’t want the Tory party to get into the habit of deposing its leaders,’ David replied.

Sue Gray is not your typical civil servant. She used to run a pub near the Irish border when it was bandit country. I remember the night we entered No. 10 12 years ago. Everyone was falling over themselves to please the new political masters — ‘Yes, PM’, ‘Of course, PM’ — until suddenly someone said: ‘No, Prime Minister. You can’t do that.’ All eyes turned to the woman who had upset the party. It was Sue. She explained calmly that the number of appointments we wanted to make would break the rules. Despite much huffing, there was no way round it. Sue had laid down the law.

One thing I learnt next door in No. 11 is that everyone says they’re happy to pay higher taxes for public services until the time comes to cough up. Rishi Sunak was right to insist last year that his neighbour’s penchant for extra spending had to be paid for, not borrowed through the deficit. But now the National Insurance rises loom at a time when real incomes are shrinking. We too reduced the deficit, but took a different approach. We controlled spending and shrank the state. That meant we could cut NICs on jobs, along with business tax and income tax. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect this would be Rishi’s preferred approach too. To his real credit, Boris got the big judgment call on Omicron right. If Starmer had been PM he’d have locked down. On the economy, I’m less clear.

The battle we should be worried about is Russia and Ukraine. It’s good to see Liz Truss and Ben Wallace taking a stand and arming our allies, but a pacifistic America and a fragmenting Europe create a vacuum. We’ve contributed to that. If Britain and France can’t manage their post-Brexit relationship without resorting to gunboats in the Channel, what signal does that send to our real enemies? The wars in Iraq and Libya taught my political generation the high cost of intervention; the humiliating retreat from Kabul and the appalling famine looming there is now teaching this political generation the heavy price we pay for our absence.

There was a time when Britain guaranteed the borders of eastern Europe with the promise to go to war. A few years ago, I attended some press awards and sat next to an elderly lady. She told me she’d been a journalist and was receiving a lifetime award for her top scoop. ‘What was it?’ I asked, rather ignorantly. ‘The start of the second world war,’ came her reply. As a young reporter on the Polish border in 1939, Clare Hollingworth had seen the Panzer tanks crossing with her own eyes. No offence to former Fleet Street colleagues, but that beats sightings of a birthday cake.

One development I’m less worried about is a grand China/Russia axis. I’ve always suspected their long history of mutual suspicion mitigated against it. Having just finished Colin Thubron’s beguiling new book about the vast Amur river that forms the border between the two countries, I’m even more convinced. The Chinese people he met there are contemptuous of the Russians, while the Russians are terrified of the Chinese.

The Prime Minister is a big fan of history, and of the British Museum. As its chair, I tried to get him to recent exhibitions on Thomas Becket and Nero. Archbishop Becket, of course, had run the government until some loose words at a Whitehall palace party led to his assassination. Nero was a showman and very popular with the common citizens of Rome. But the rising costs of government, and the taxes to pay for them, became too much. There was also a row over the extravagant decoration of the royal palace. The Senate had had enough, and he was killed. What a shame Boris didn’t see either show.

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