This is Ian Dunt’s Week, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

Good afternoon and welcome to another proposition of despair in the form of a political newsletter.

Awful lot of absolute tosh being spoken about the Sue Gray story today. Keir Starmer appointed the second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office and former Partygate investigator as his chief of staff last night and all hell broke loose.

The front page of the Daily Mail – demonstrating its usual restraint – screamed: “Is this proof the Partygate probe was a Labour plot?” A “friend” of Boris Johnson claimed it “reveals what many have suspected all along: Partygate was a deliberate and manufactured plot to oust a Brexit-backing Conservative prime minister”. Jacob Rees-Mogg is demanding Rishi Sunak block the appointment.

Lots to break down here, all of it unimaginably stupid and cynical. Firstly, none of these figures has a leg to stand on. Indeed, they’ve spent the last few years systematically sawing off their toes, feet, ankles, shins and thighs and now find themselves baffled as to why no one can hear their protests from ground level. They were decidedly unconcerned when Robbie Gibb left as head of the BBC’s political programme output to become director of communications at No 10 or when Richard Sharp helped Johnson arrange a loan weeks before he was recommended for the job of BBC chair. Their sudden conversion to strict constitutional propriety comes a bit too late to be taken seriously.

The idea that Gray’s investigation was a Labour plot is also difficult to maintain if you have the least capacity for functional human memory.

A great conspiracy

The first thing you might remember is that Gray did not force Boris Johnson to hold parties in Downing Street, then attend them, and then lie about the fact he had done so. The second is that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was originally in charge of that investigation until it transpired that he’d actually been at one of the parties. The third is that Johnson is quite literally the person who tasked Gray with pursuing the investigation. The fourth is that figures like Rees-Mogg were praising Gray for her “independence” throughout this period. The fifth is that the police fined Johnson on their own volition. And the sixth is that her report was actually pretty generous to Johnson, all things considered, ignoring certain parties altogether and putting out little that wasn’t already public. But sure, it’s a great conspiracy.

The more compelling explanation for what’s taking place is that whole parts of the institutional culture in the Conservative Party have completely lost their mind to conspiracy theory.

There is a much more respectable argument against the Gray appointment made by figures like Jerry Hayes. It is that the optics are bad.

The argument goes like this. We know that Conservative politicians have developed a conspiracy mindset about the civil service. They regularly complain about the “deep state” or the “blob”, by which they mean that civil servants are still trying to abide by the original Northcote-Trevelyan settlement and impart objective information to their ministers. By making the appointment, Starmer has played into that narrative.

Nothing will ever satisfy Tory ministers

This argument is perfectly sound, but it is also terribly wrong. Nothing will ever satisfy Tory ministers. Countless thousands of civil servants have put their own views to one side – including, yes, on Brexit – and tried to deliver for their minister only for it to make no difference to the rambling madness about “Remoaners” or the “deep state”. On what possible basis should we now block sensible appointments to placate the incoherent rage of people who will never change regardless? The only way to satisfy them is to create a civil service which exactly replicates their own ideology. In other words: to eradicate it as a functioning institution.

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There should of course be robust mechanisms in place to ensure impartiality, including that Gray does not use her knowledge of disciplinary matters while in the civil service to help Labour target Conservatives. But to claim she cannot do the job at all suggests that the very notion of impartiality is an impossibility. Which, of course, is precisely at the heart of the Tory conspiracy mindset.

In fact, Starmer’s appointment of Gray is very sensible indeed. It is our first proper glimpse of what he’ll be like if he becomes prime minister. And it tells us something very reassuring: he wants to get things done.

That sounds a terribly low bar. After all, which prime minister doesn’t? But in fact it is a very high bar which defeats most occupants of Downing Street.

An excellent litmus test

They all have things they want to do. But most do not think about how they will do them. They want NHS waiting lists to go down, for instance, so they demand it, and then it doesn’t happen. Why? Because achieving that kind of complex, difficult project requires sustained work involving multiple government departments over a long time horizon, in which they must work closely with each other and the community organisations they are influencing, as well as the centre in Downing Street and the bank account at the Treasury. Most prime ministers have neither the temperament nor the organisational structure to make that project work.

The chief of staff role can be whatever people want it to be. It has no definition. It is therefore an excellent litmus test of how prime ministers are going to behave. Tony Blair got things done partly because he had a civil servant – Jonathan Powell – in the position. Theresa May didn’t because she treated it as a political job, hiring people like Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, then getting in Gavin Barwell when it all fell apart after the 2017 election.

The fact Starmer has opted for someone with a deep knowledge of the civil service indicates that he is serious about preparing for Downing Street and about actually delivering on the policy agenda he puts forward.

Not only is Gray’s appointment not a problem, it is a good thing that the Opposition is thinking this way. Only in this crazed topsy-turvy world of abject hypocritical bullshit could it instead be presented as some kind of constitutional calamity.

What to Watch This Weekend: Olive Kitteridge

Frances McDormand in Olive Kitteridge. (Photo: HBO)

I was banging on about how good this book was on here the other day, now I’ve finally made it onto the HBO miniseries. These things can never quite live up to what you had in your head, but having Frances McDormand in the lead role certainly helps with that. Whether you’ve read the book or not, it’s very much worth your time: kind, hard-edged, unsentimental and engaged with the kinds of lives, and the parts of those lives, which we very rarely dwell on.

What to Listen to This Weekend: Hard Fork – The Bing Who Loved Me

“In this episode of New York Times podcast Hard Fork, a conversation with Bing AI turns romantic and aggressive”. (Photo: Getty)

This episode of the New York Times podcast on tech issues goes to some really quite incredibly weird places, after a conversation with Bing AI turns romantic and aggressive. It’s genuinely unsettling, not because it’s achieving consciousness – it isn’t – but because of the implications of what this kind of resource will do to society, when many people will naturally feel that AI has achieved consciousness. A gripping listen.

What to Read This Weekend: Churchill, by Andrew Roberts

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill pictured in 1939. (Photo:  Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Absolute beast of a biography here, coming in at around 1,000 pages. It’s hard to get a decent book on the Second World War leader, with most of them being either completely seduced by his myth or operating as a progressive hatchet job. Roberts is undeniably sympathetic, but he is detached enough to give us the full details of Churchill’s many mistakes and his various terrible views. Probably about as comprehensive and fair a modern tome as we’re likely to get.

This is Ian Dunt’s Week, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

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