The former Newry pub landlady who holds Boris’ future in her hands

It is the investigation Westminster and most of the media is talking about – so just what is the inquiry into possible Downing Street lockdown breaches and who is Sue Gray, the woman leading it?

By The Newsroom
Friday, 14th January 2022, 6:44 pm
Updated Saturday, 15th January 2022, 10:18 am

There are a litany of allegations about rule-breaking parties held in No 10 and elsewhere in Government while coronavirus restrictions were in place during 2020, ranging from summer garden drinks to Christmas bashes.

The inquiry will include understanding what happened on 20 May 2020 during a “bring your own booze” garden drinks event for staff – held when it was forbidden for more than two people to meet outside during the first lockdown, and that the Prime Minister has admitted he attended for about 25 minutes.

Why is Sue Gray leading it? The Cabinet Office second permanent secretary found herself thrust into the limelight and chosen to step in to lead the investigation after Cabinet Secretary Simon Case – her boss – recused himself following allegations that his own office held a Christmas event in December 2020.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Sue Gray, appearing before the Public Administration Select Committee, in 2012. Photo: BBC.

Much remains unknown about Ms Gray, who is in her mid-60s. In the 1980s she took a career break to run a pub four miles outside Newry on the Rathfriland Road with her husband, Co Down man Bill Conlon. Called The Cove, the premises is now a children’s daycare nursery.

Yesterday Leontia and Seamus Duffy, who live close by, told the News Letter about their friendship with her in the 1980s. “Sue was quiet, the loveliest girl ever,” Leontia said. Her husband added: “She was very mannerly, she spoke to everybody, she knew everybody’s name.”

In 2015, BBC Newsnight’s policy editor Chris Cook described Ms Gray as “the most powerful civil servant you’ve never heard of” and “also perhaps the most secretive you could ever hope to meet”.

Almost four years ago her appointment as permanent secretary of Stormont’s Department of Finance drew attention. She applied for the role of head of the civil service in NI but later said she may have been rejected for the top job because it was thought she was “too much of a challenger”. She is now Boris Johnson’s principal adviser on the union.

Sue Gray, a powerful civil servant who is investigating the drinks party at Downing Street during lockdown, ran a pub in this premises just outside Newry in the 1980s with her husband. It is now used as a daycare nursery.

Members of the Government have urged Mr Johnson’s critics to wait for the findings of Ms Gray’s inquiry before passing judgment after Tory MPs began publicly calling for him to quit.

The Times reported that the inquiry was expected to find no evidence of criminality but that the investigation could censure Mr Johnson for a lack of judgment and criticise the culture in Downing Street.

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Ben Lowry