The Times – 17 July 2020
At one level the farce over the election of a new Chairman for the Intelligence and Security Committee can be seen as just another example of No 10’s increasingly familiar mixture of control-freakery and incompetence. It was tempting fate for Boris Johnson, having decided to try to rig the contest, to have settled as his favoured candidate upon the unimpressive Chris Grayling, whose own ministerial career became a byword for failure.
Yet even after taking the trouble to pack the Committee with apparently biddable Tories and remove a respected crossbencher, the Prime Minister still failed to get his man elected. He reckoned without the ambition and sense of propriety of Julian Lewis, a Tory with strong foreign policy credentials, who conspired with Committee members from other parties to be elected.
Yet rather than take his defeat on the chin, Mr Johnson’s petulant response has been to chuck Mr Lewis out of the parliamentary party. Only the most tribal Tories will think this treatment justified. Most people will applaud Mr Lewis’s decision to defend the independence and integrity of a Committee that plays an important role in national life, overseeing the work of the Intelligence Services at a time when they have to respond to an ever growing array of risks, bringing with it the potential for political controversy.
One of the first consequences of Mr Lewis’s election was to bring forward to next week the publication of the previous Committee’s report into Russian interference in British politics, which Mr Johnson had delayed for nine months. The fact that the government chose yesterday to make public its own conclusions about Russian interference in last year’s General Election and attempts to hack vaccine research serves only to underline why this report should have been published sooner.
More troublingly, Mr Johnson’s attempts to neuter the Committee are part of a wider effort to erode the checks and balances in government and evade detailed scrutiny. Last month he similarly broke with parliamentary custom to impose his own candidate on the Commons Liaison Committee, which questions the Prime Minister. Since taking office a year ago, Mr Johnson has appeared before that Committee only once. The Cabinet Secretary and other senior officials have been forced out in what looks like an assault on civil service independence. An under-qualified political appointee has been imposed as National Security Adviser. Press photographers have been banished from Downing Street, to be replaced by court photographers who pump out positive pictures. No 10 wants to slash the number of government press officers and bring them under central control. Mr Johnson has also talked of bringing judicial appointments under political control.
The impatience with the checks and balances provided by independent institutions is perhaps understandable. The government has taken office at a momentous time. Brexit necessitates an overhaul of almost every aspect of Britain’s economic model. Rising geopolitical tensions require a wholesale reassessment of defence and security. Downing Street also has its own ambitions for domestic reform, including its levelling-up agenda and a shake-up of the civil service.
Yet it is short-sighted to think that the way to deliver lasting change is to do so stealthily. Scrutiny, however uncomfortable in the short term, can expose weaknesses that lead to better decision-making. It can also help to build a national consensus that makes it more likely changes will endure. In contrast, playing fast and loose with safeguards that preserve liberal democracy and were built up over decades risks creating precedents that one day might be turned against you. The greatest risk, however, is that independent institutions will eventually fight back, making No 10 look foolish and weak. As the Intelligence Committee did this week.
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JOHNSON AND THE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE 'COUP'
Letters to the Editor
The Times – 17 July 2020
It would seem Boris Johnson did not get his own way over who would chair the intelligence and security committee (News, July 16). Julian Lewis was elected for the position under an established parliamentary system, so any talk of duplicity on his part by Tory MPs is sour grapes. The committee would have been aware of Mr Lewis’s record, while chairman of the defence committee, of methodically taking the government to task over defence cuts. He also fought the corner of serving personnel and veterans over many issues. Even Chris Grayling might concede that Mr Lewis is the right person for the job.
Mark Iles, Newark, Notts
The prime minister expected the intelligence and security committee to rubber-stamp his candidate, an ex-minister whose recent oversight of public services evidently failed to inspire confidence in his ability to oversee the secret services. Instead the majority of the committee voted to have as their chairman someone whose doctorate was about post-war strategic defence, and who was the most recent chairman of the defence select committee. I wonder if Britain is better served by the prime minister’s choice or that of the committee.
Tony Kerpel, London NW3
Your headline refers to a committee “coup”. It is no such thing. The committee, not the government, is supposed to choose its chairman. That is the point of it – to provide secure independent scrutiny of what the executive is doing. If anyone was trying to pull off a coup it was No 10, by disingenuously trying to fix it for Chris Grayling while at the same time denying that. The withdrawal of the whip from Julian Lewis gives a clear indication of where the truth lies.
Adrian Cosker, Hitchin, Herts
That government's endeavour to influence the membership of parliamentary committees is neither surprising nor new. What is worrying is not only the vindictiveness of No 10 in their treatment of Julian Lewis, but more importantly the crass stupidity in propelling what should have been a minor embarrassment into a national controversy and own goal. Such appalling behaviour and judgment.
Lord Lee of Trafford, House of Lords
Sir, I don’t think Julian Lewis need worry unduly about having the whip removed. Not only has he exposed the ineffectiveness of it but he has demonstrated the necessary intelligence skills to neutralise the Machiavellian attempts of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings to impose someone ill-qualified for the role. Their actions have highlighted the need for the committee to hold the executive to account and Mr Lewis has hopefully now gained a little extra independence to be able to do so.
I M Adams-Cairns, Godalming, Surrey
Sir, Your report said: “Grayling didn’t see it coming”. What is even more worrying for a prospective leader of intelligence, “he didn’t know who was standing against him until he saw the ballot paper”. Nice one, Chris.
Jim Liddle, Durham