How Sue Gray achieved success from humble beginnings

The barmaid’s daughter from the tough side of Tottenham who’s holding Boris’ fate in her hands: How the ‘all-powerful’ Sue Gray achieved her success from humble beginnings… as she delivers her Partygate findings this week

From a young age, Sue Gray was destined for great things. It wasn’t just that she pored over her schoolbooks with rare devotion while other children played outside in the street. 

Or that she was sharp and persuasive, with unusual equanimity. It was more, according to a relative, that she ‘had this aura, and that when she spoke, even when she was a kid, people listened’.

This week, possibly tomorrow, the entire country will be listening when she delivers her much-anticipated Partygate findings – her untangling of the toxic claims and counter-claims about alleged lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street that may decide the Prime Minister’s fate.

From relative obscurity, Sue Gray has suddenly become the most famous civil servant in the land. Epithets applied to the 64-year-old include ‘all-powerful’, ‘formidable’ and ‘enforcer’. 

Former Cabinet Minister Sir Oliver Letwin once playfully posited: ‘Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray. Nothing moves in Whitehall unless Sue says so.’

This week, possibly tomorrow, the entire country will be listening when she delivers her much-anticipated Partygate findings – her untangling of the toxic claims and counter-claims about alleged lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street that may decide the Prime Minister’s fate

But for all the talk of her omniscience, much of her past has, until now, remained a closed book, with even the most elementary biographical details unknown.

The Mail on Sunday can reveal that unlike many of her peers, whose route to Whitehall’s highest tier was smoothed by expensive schooling and Oxbridge, Sue’s success was achieved from humble beginnings.

Her parents were poor but hard-working Irish immigrants – her father, Leo, a furniture salesman, and her mother, Anastasia, a long-serving barmaid – who settled in Tottenham, North London, in the early 1950s. Sue was born in 1957, followed by her brother Kevin three years later. For several years the family lived on the same street as the Oakdale Arms, the large community pub where Anastasia worked, juggling child rearing with pint pulling.

Friends recall Anastasia, known to all as Cissy, as ‘charismatic’ and devoted to her family.

And her no-nonsense way of dealing with troublesome customers prefigured her redoubtable daughter who, years later, would strike fear among Ministers as the director general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office.

In the 1970s, Sue’s academic achievements at a Catholic state school in North London were described by her cousin, David Howgill, 64, as ‘simply brilliant’. He said: ‘She was very driven and it was obvious Sue was going to have an amazing career.’

By the time she celebrated her 18th birthday in September 1975, she was contemplating university; but a month later tragedy struck.

Having always seemed in good health, her father died of a sudden heart attack aged just 47. Money had always been tight but, with only Cissy’s income from the pub, the Grays faced serious hardship.

The Mail on Sunday can reveal that unlike many of her peers, whose route to Whitehall’s highest tier was smoothed by expensive schooling and Oxbridge, Sue’s success was achieved from humble beginnings

Family friend Hazel Dicks said: ‘In those days – and particularly in the area where Sue grew up – there was this attitude that you accepted whatever came your way.

‘You just had to do jobs to get by to pay the bills, there was nobody there to help you out. Sue lived in a difficult neighbourhood, young kids throwing bricks through windows, that kind of thing.’

It is easy to see why Sue surrendered her dream of university and instead joined the Civil Service straight from school. Of this period, little is known. Relatives recall her working ‘long, punishing hours’ and that her mother ‘worried about her commuting to and from the office in the dark’.

Whenever her large, extended family gathered, Sue never mentioned work. ‘It was always said she did something important for the Government,’ said a relative.

It was Mr Howgill’s mother, Catherine – Cissy’s sister – who was pivotal in keeping the family together after Leo died. If Sue and Kevin, then 14, were shattered by their father’s untimely death, Cissy was more broken still and slid into a depression from which she never fully recovered.

Catherine, known as Kitty, was an invaluable help and the two sisters were inseparable, later sharing a house. ‘They were always together – Cissy, tall, Kitty much shorter – and they were both extremely well dressed,’ recalled a neighbour. Cissy died in 2003, aged 72.

Both mother and aunt were towering figures in Sue’s early life and she drew inspiration from both.

According to Mr Howgill, Sue didn’t have much time for boyfriends until she met Bill Conlon, a Northern Irish part-time country and western singer, from the fishing village of Portaferry in County Down. ‘I think he was her first and only love really,’ he said.

The couple, both then 27, married in March 1985 at Newtownards register office near Belfast while Sue was taking a career break. A church wedding was out of the question as Bill, a joiner, was a divorcee.

It had been Bill’s dream to run a pub – preferably one big enough to double as a music venue. An opportunity arose when the Cove Bar near the border town of Newry needed new management.

At this time, Newry was a key battleground between the British Army and the IRA. A month before their wedding, nine police officers were killed and 40 people injured in an IRA mortar attack on the RUC base in the town.

Sue’s Newry sojourn is intriguing. According to Peter Cardwell, a former special adviser to four Cabinet Ministers: ‘Some speculated that she was a spy – something she denies.’

From relative obscurity, Sue Gray has suddenly become the most famous civil servant in the land. Epithets applied to the 64-year-old include ‘all-powerful’, ‘formidable’ and ‘enforcer’

In 1987, the couple returned to London where their two sons, Liam and Ciaran, were born.

Sue resumed her Civil Service career, working across Whitehall in transport, health and work and pensions, before joining the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s.

Relatives said Liam and Ciaran, now in their 30s, inherited their parents’ sense of social justice.

One story from 2012 typifies the family’s altruism.

The five-member Paralympic team from Burkina Faso, West Africa, had arrived at Heathrow in the lead-up to the 2012 Games only to find that a payment from their government to cover their lodging and training facilities had failed to materialise, leaving them sitting on the floor of the airport surrounded by their bags, with nowhere to go.

Liam, an official Paralympic meet-and-greet volunteer, saved the day. The then 24-year-old took them to the family home in Essex. The three men in the party stayed with him at his parents’ house for three and a half weeks, while the two women were put up in a nearby convent. In addition, Liam found them new equipment and somewhere to train.

For now, her friends and family will just have to wait, like everyone else, for the results of her inquiry

‘It was an absolutely wonderful thing to do,’ recalled another close relative. ‘Both Sue’s boys are lovely. And all credit to Sue and Bill for putting the team up without any notice.’ At the time Liam, now chairman of the Labour Party’s Irish Society, called it a ‘privilege not a chore’.

Sue surprised many five years ago by moving to Northern Ireland to run the Department of Finance in Belfast. Before she returned to Whitehall last April, she sent a goodbye email to senior colleagues, explaining that due to the restrictions, she could not mark her departure socially.

A Belfast mandarin who knew her well said: ‘She certainly brought an energy and a drive and she did have a different outlook to most people that you would encounter in the Civil Service.’

For now, her friends and family will just have to wait, like everyone else, for the results of her inquiry.

Mr Howgill was not surprised last week when his cousin chose not to respond to his text wishing her ‘good luck with the Boris report’.

‘She has always been very private,’ he said. ‘Private but down to earth. The whole family are very proud of Sue.

‘And her mum would be very proud that she’s done so well.’

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