By Paul Waugh
Huffington Post – 16 July 2020
The look on Chris Grayling’s face said it all. The former minister had breezed into the first meeting of the newly convened Intelligence and Security Committee in the Macmillan Room in Portcullis House, fully expecting to be the only Tory name on the ballot paper. But it turned out that Macmillan’s ghost hovered over proceedings as much as his portrait, as the day of the short knives produced a spectacular shock. Grayling was a picture of incredulity and puzzlement as he saw Julian Lewis’ candidacy in black and white next to his, before the swift realisation kicked in that he had been outmanoeuvred.
The ensuing secret ballot yielded the inevitable result: 5 votes for Lewis (his own, plus three Labour and one SNP vote), 4 for Grayling (himself, plus three Tory MPs). The election of the person who now oversees MI6, MI5 and other UK security agencies was itself a masterpiece of cloak and dagger politics, precision timing and superior intelligence gathering. The Tory whips were furious, and No.10 more furious still at this very British coup.
Grayling had made clear his own intention to be Chair two days ago, but Lewis had left it until the day of the committee’s first meeting to inform its clerk that he was putting himself forward. There was no prior notice for the government, as unlike select committees, the ISC picks its own Chairman from its own members. It was a moment of which Lewis’s old friend John Bercow would have been proud. Just as Bercow became Commons Speaker on the back of Labour votes, the veteran Tory backbencher clinched the Chairmanship of arguably the country’s most important parliamentary watchdog thanks to Opposition backing.
Lewis, 68, was undeniably better qualified to chair the ISC than Grayling. A former member of the committee from 2010 to 2015, a former defence select committee Chairman and a former Naval Reservist, he has long experience of security and intelligence issues. Even Grayling’s allies admit his closest involvement with security issues was when he was transport secretary (which does mean being on the emergency Cobra committee from time to time).
Lewis was so respected that he secured the nomination of the prime minister for the committee, which is unusual in parliament in that its entire membership requires the prior approval of No.10 in consultation with the leader of the Opposition. Although it is up to the Commons and Lords to then approve its membership, the sifting process – on grounds ostensibly of national security – makes it unique.
It is perhaps that prior approval that fuelled the strong sense of betrayal felt in Downing Street when the news came through. The decision to swiftly withdraw the whip from Lewis underscored the anger, with No.10 sources muttering that his “duplicity” had to be punished. Most embarrassingly of all, chief whip Mark Spencer had been caught cold on an issue where whipping was in theory not allowed – the statute that governs the ISC states expressly that the Chair of the ISC is “chosen by its members”, not No.10.
Whips have been suggesting that Lewis had assured them he would vote for Grayling, only to renege on the promise. The MP may refuse to answer that charge if asked about it, but he and the Opposition members may have left no traces of collusion. The committee itself is shrouded in adherence to the Official Secrets Act, so the ironies are multiple.
Lewis is so idiosyncratic that he is the only one of 650 MPs in the Commons not to allow constituents to contact him by email, insisting instead that they use letter, fax or phone to do so. He is thought unlikely to have left an evidence trail of any plans for the committee Chairmanship.
Lewis’s security experience attracted him to the Opposition members, but it was his “fierce independence” and “consensual” approach that was the clincher. And throughout his career the New Forest East MP has certainly been no leader’s poodle. He was among the hardcore Brexiteers who consistently voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, but he also voted against David Cameron’s bid to launch military action in Syria, and against the Lib-Con coalition increasing student tuition fees. Maverick is his middle name.
Yet Lewis also had early experience of pulling off audacious actions behind enemy lines. As a graduate research student, he managed to infiltrate the Labour Party in the 1970s, helping ‘moderates’ recapture part of the Newham North East local constituency party where MP Reg Prentice was targeted by the Left. Ultimately, Prentice had the crucial vote that brought down James Callaghan and ushered in Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory.
There is little likelihood of Lewis ‘crossing the floor’ to join Labour as Prentice did to the Tories, but the stripping of the Tory whip means he is now as officially “independent” as an MP as much as he was figuratively. Some Conservative MPs are already speculating that the whole affair proves the need to axe Spencer as chief whip and perhaps move him in what is seen as a more likely reshuffle, possibly to Defra. The decision by Johnson to remove the whip was also further evidence of his own ruthless approach to party management, last seen when former cabinet ministers like David Gauke and Philip Hammond were effectively booted out of the party over Brexit, despite their willingness to return to the fold.
The difficulty for No.10 now is just what next step to take. In theory it could take the “nuclear option” and oust Lewis from the committee by tabling a Commons motion of selection, replacing him with another Tory MP, and thereby allowing a fresh internal election of a new Chairman of the ISC. A 90-minute debate would be needed, followed by a vote on the floor of the Commons. The danger is that would lay bare just how party political the Chairmanship would be, itself seen by even some of the PM’s allies as a move that could undermine the committee and its relationship with the intelligence agencies – all of which need to be protected from any charge of party politics in their scrutiny.
The government would have to act very quickly too, and it may be too late to get any motion on the Order Paper in time. Tomorrow morning the ISC meets to discuss when to publish the ‘Russia report’, believed to cover donations to the Tory party among other issues. It is likely that the committee will recommend very swift publication.
In the latest James Bond movies, the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee is Gareth Mallory, played by Ralph Fiennes. Mallory goes on to replace Judi Dench as ‘M’. Few would consider Lewis to be as dashing as Fiennes’s character and he would make an unlikely spy. But no matter what happens to him next, the spectre of high-handed incompetence is again haunting Boris Johnson’s government.