The former publican who could call last orders on Boris Johnson

In June 2009, Mr Campbell wrote of a lunch with Ms Gray at which she urged him to stand as a Labour candidate in time for the 2010 General Election that Gordon Brown lost. 

“To my surprise [she] felt really strongly I should go for Burnley,” wrote Mr Campbell. “She felt they [Labour] were badly in need of direction and none of the people at the top at the moment could give it.”

At the lunch, Ms Gray, according to the Campbell diaries, “was full of stories of how dysfunctional it all was” in reference to the Brown administration. For a civil servant, she seems surprisingly candid. On the subject of Ed Miliband, she told Mr Campbell that she liked him “personally but felt he was weak”. 

Public servant in a public house

Ms Gray and her husband, Bill Conlon, an acclaimed country and western singer, bought a pub, with family connections, called The Cove in the late 1980s. They ran it for a number of years before she returned to the Civil Service, working across Whitehall in transport, health and work and pensions, before joining the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s.

She served in Northern Ireland as permanent secretary in Stormont’s department of finance, but was passed over for the top job of head of the Northern Ireland civil service in 2020. 

In a rare interview, she told the BBC that she had “really wanted the job” but felt she had been passed over because “people may have thought that I perhaps was too much of a challenger, or a disruptor”.

She returned to the Cabinet Office last May to take up the post of second permanent secretary with the responsibility for the Union and Constitution.

Friends call her a “straight shooter” who will leave no stone unturned in getting to the truth about the various parties – Downing Street calls them “gatherings” – but will also investigate the “culture” inside Number 10 that allowed them to occur in the first place. 

They point out the irony that had she been in the Cabinet Office at the time of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms Gray would have put a stop to any parties once she had wind of them. 

 Now she is back – and Boris Johnson should be afraid, very afraid. 

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