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.