If I had to compile a list of the top ten most impressive civil servants I worked with, Sue Gray would be right up there. A warm human being, which always helps. Very calm, incredibly hard-working, smart, and with a sharp sense of humour, which is surely being tested to the limit right now.
I also owe her something of a personal debt, because when I first published my diaries, with Tony Blair still in office, Sue was in charge of the vetting process. It meant her going through everything, deciding which parts of government needed to see what, coming back with their comments, concerns and complaints, and then negotiating with me on what had to go, and what might stay. Government departments, the Royal Family, the security services.
It could have been a nightmare. Thanks largely to her, it wasn’t, and though there were a few things that had to get the red pen treatment, the vast bulk of what I wanted to publish remained.
Indeed, as a joke, I emailed her at the end of the process, to tell her that I intended to dedicate the book to her. “Don’t you dare!” came the immediate response. Sue Gray is someone who does not like to be in the public gaze.
Right now, the gaze could hardly be more intense. Ministers telling all and sundry that we must “wait for Sue Gray.” MPs telling their furious constituents that their view will “depend on what Sue Gray comes up with.” Ludicrously, the Met Police hiding behind her skirts.
There are Sue Gray memes and poems and songs. She has gone from being barely known outside Whitehall to being a central figure in a story being played out around the world. It is a horrible position for a civil servant to be placed in, and typical of Johnson that he has put her there.
So even as she does her work, the lapdog ministers and cheerleading media are told to call her “independent” when there is no such thing as an independent civil servant – they are impartial, which is not the same thing – and her report cannot possibly be independent, when she has to report directly to Johnson, and to the Cabinet secretary who had to recuse himself because of his own party-going.
As they did with Lord Geidt and Wallpapergate, the Johnson spin machine is playing the expectations game. So long as she doesn’t say in black and white that he is a law-breaking, lazy, lying, cheating, drink-sodden useless oaf whose antics helped to kill tens of thousands of people, they will lean on their media poodles to pre-empt that this means he has been “cleared”. It worked with Geidt and when you’re possessed with the arrogance and entitlement of this mob, they will think they can get away with it again.
If I were in her place, I would take them at their word, say “right, you say I am independent, so I need more powers of investigation, and when my report is done, you don’t get to change a single bloody comma.” She won’t, because, unlike Johnson, she is genuinely committed to public service, which in her case means serving the government of the day. Johnson has further demeaned public service by putting her in this position.
For all they parade with Union flags and portraits of the Queen on their walls, that Number 10 could throw a party on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral suggests epic hypocrisy. Compare and contrast: When the Queen Mother died, then-chancellor Alistair Darling was away on holiday. He was worried about going out, in case people felt it disrespectful.
Boris Johnson meanwhile was editor of The Spectator, inventing stories about Tony Blair demanding a major role at the funeral. When he sought selection as Tory London mayoral candidate, he listed it as one of his three greatest triumphs. Once a lying charlatan…
My reward for stepping in last-minute to replace Neil Kinnock as comedian Matt Forde’s guest in his live show at the Duchess Theatre was a wonderful book, Be Good, Love Brian. Matt, a Nottingham Forest fan, is aware of my love for and fascination with Brian Clough.
It’s impossible not to love the great manager even more after reading Craig Bromfield’s account of how he and his brother were virtually adopted by Cloughie after he ran into them outside the Forest team hotel in Sunderland in 1984.
Craig eventually moved down to live with the Cloughs in the Midlands, travel on the team bus to matches, work at the club, be showered with money, gifts and love he was denied from his own abusive stepfather.
I know it’s early, but it’s my book of 2022 so far. Hilarious at times, incredibly sad at others, and I especially loved the passage where Cloughie saw a ‘vote Conservative’ poster and made the boys promise on their mother’s life that they would never vote Tory.
I saw Neil Kinnock for lunch a few days after the event, was telling him about the book, and he told me the story of an event he did with Labour-supporting Cloughie back in the 1980s, who attacked Nye Bevan’s famous jibe that the Tories were “lower than vermin” on the grounds that “it’s an insult to vermin”. What I wouldn’t give for Clough’s views on Johnson, Raab, Rees-Mogg, Patel, Truss, Sunak… “shithouses, the lot of them”, I expect.
I looked up Bevan’s speech, delivered on July 4, 1948, when I got home. The fuller context, immediately after the V-word, is worth reading, in the light of today.
“They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation. Now the Tories are pouring out money in propaganda of all sorts and are hoping by this organised sustained mass suggestion to eradicate from our minds all memory of what we went through.
“But, I warn you young men and women, do not listen to what they are saying now. Do not listen to the seductions of Lord Woolton. He is a very good salesman. If you are selling shoddy stuff you have to be a good salesman. But I warn you, they have not changed, or if they have they are slightly worse than they were.”
And given all the Covid corruption, and the steady privatisation of the NHS, this seemed apposite too: “What is Toryism, except organised spivvery? They wanted to let the spivs loose.”
One of the upsides of Armin Laschet losing the German elections is that it means Tanit Koch has left her job with him and returned to us with her Germansplaining column. Given my obsession with all things Deutsch, it is one of my favourite things in TNE.
A bit of Germansplaining of my own, to tell you my favourite headline – or sub-head, to be more precise – of thousands around the world inspired by the Number 10 parties. Bild, often unfairly described as the German equivalent of The Sun, had a picture of Johnson with a pint in his hand, and the headline “War es ein Bier zu viel, Boris?” (“Was it one beer too many?”)
Below, the second part of the headline: “Corona-Party bringt den Briten-Premier ins Wanken.” Wanken can mean shake, falter, or wobble, so it is suggesting the illegal raves have shaken the PM. Other words could have been used to make the point. But a picture of Johnson alongside the W-word was too good to miss.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you the Germans don’t have a sense of humour, or a profound understanding of the nature of the “Briten-Premier”, who is ein großer Wanker indeed. You pronounce it “Vanker” by the way, so no asterisks required.
Given the chaos Covid is inflicting on football, may I suggest this season is just declared null and void, and we start again in August? This suggestion has nothing to do with Burnley’s place in the Premier League table. As ever, I am merely motivated by trying to help the world as a whole.