Hurt pride should be no reason to prolong this fractious episode, as the Government and Mr Lewis are actually on the same page over security
By Stewart Jackson
Daily Telegraph – 17 July 2020
Few people outside of the specialist and secretive world of defence, intelligence and security would have heard of Dr Julian Lewis, scion of a Jewish tailor from South Wales, academic polemicist and Cold Warrior and part of the furniture in the Tory family, prior to this week's spat over his usurpation of the Chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee. He now sits uneasily at the head of a committee which he clearly is more than well qualified to chair having gained the support of opposition MPs, humiliated his colleague Chris Grayling and made powerful enemies of the Prime Minister and Chief Whip. He looks too to have won the initial media briefing wars which is some achievement for the only MP who specifically eschews Twitter, all other social media and even e-mail.
So far his narrative of a good decent and well-qualified man done down by the brute force of the (new) Establishment, a sort of James Stewart "Mr Smith goes to Washington" redux, is gaining some traction. It will tickle Dr Lewis, who has always believed in fighting the dark forces with common sense and well-marshalled and logical arguments. Quite rightly, he prays in aid the unique legislative underpinning of the Intelligence and Security Committee, by way of the 2013 Justice and Security Act, which removed the right of the Prime Minister to hand-pick the committee Chairman and its arm's length nature, the better to properly scrutinise the Intelligence Services, in particular.
He will also genuinely be puzzled and affronted to have been disregarded as a serious candidate prior to Wednesday's coup d'etat. Because he's at heart a decent man, he will be troubled too by the predicament in which Chris Grayling finds himself – and will view the latter rightly as an unfortunate casualty of the crossfire and not one worthy of so much unfair and vicious abuse and the trashing of his record.
This isn't a novel situation for Julian Lewis: he was unfairly passed over for a ministerial portfolio during the Cameron period because he was too much a patriot, too unfashionable, too challenging, too reminiscent of the Thatcher era and not with the funky modernising agenda, and so he retreated to the important and unglamorous committee corridors as Chairman of the Defence Select Committee. The years of battling the hard Left in the 1980s with the Coalition for Peace and Security, his time at Conservative Central Office (as it then was) and his ubiquity through the last thirty years means he carries a degree of goodwill and respect across the party in Parliament and beyond, even for those puzzled by his strangely modulated speech and esoteric occupations.
It was a mistake for the Whips Office not to understand that below this polite exterior was a man rightly angry at never having been favoured with a red box despite being right in all the biggest judgement calls of the last few years – on the nuclear deterrent and the need to defeat the Soviet Union and its 'evil empire', on Syrian military intervention and of course, as one of the Brexit "Spartans", who held the line against massive pressure to back Theresa May's miserable capitulation.
Facts matter to the Member for New Forest East: I remember him, when I was Chief of Staff to David Davis in 2018, brandishing a copy of a letter at me in the Commons cloisters from John Bercow to his constituents promising not to thwart Brexit and Dr Lewis carefully reading the words out so I understood clearly his point – which was (I think) that Bercow was a man of his word and wouldn't resile from his solemn promises to his constituents. He was and is fundamentally very clever, forensic and emphatically unbiddable, which sets him at odds with many Conservative MPs. Dr Lewis is also old school in his loyalty to friends. It would have been easy for him to have publicly expressed opprobrium at his friend Bercow's journey from bumptious Secretary of the Monday Club's Repatriation Committee to pin up of the Europhile woke liberal intelligentsia but he never did, preferring to shrug, politely smile and express only bafflement when assailed by many (including me) who despaired of Bercow's loathing of his former party and Conservative hinterland.
He's also tough: he faced one of the nastiest personal campaigns in his constituency from the Liberal Democrats in the mid-2000s and this, not the widely credited addiction to secrecy, was the reason he championed the change in the law to allow Members of Parliament to withhold publication of their home addresses on the ballot paper.
The Lewis bunfight has actually done the Johnson administration a favour. It's four years before the next General Election and there will be plenty of time to learn from the periodic intra-party squalls like this which are all but inevitable. This row may give rise to a proper analysis and reset of the channels of communication between not just the Whips Office and the parliamentary party but No10 and its Commons foot soldiers. Boris Johnson, despite the vicissitudes of the last six months, maintains a strong residual loyalty from the bulk of his Commons colleagues and Labour's 'Starmer spurt' appears to be petering out in the most recent opinion polls. People are prepared to cut him and his Cabinet colleagues some slack. But keeping the troops happy demands love and charm and respect. And proper intelligence about pending unhappiness and disquiet: Not a text message demanding support in a key vote the next day.
The strongest Brexiteers, in particular, have been weaned on a sense of subterfuge, concession and betrayal, often authored by No 10 and this toxic antibody will take time to exit the body politic for them. Boris needs to remember Ronald Reagan's old adage – "Dance with the one that brung you". For all that, Chief Whip Mark Spencer had little choice but to indicate his displeasure at Lewis' actions by withdrawing the Conservative whip – anything else would have signalled weakness. I assume that the status will be temporary.
Having once served in the Conservative Whips Office, I know there's nothing new under the sun: we've been here before. The House of Commons is forever jealous of its powers and autonomy and Governments of all compositions always get into a pickle over Select Committees – just ask Lord Willetts, who as David Willetts and a junior whip fell foul of the Commons in the 1992 Parliament for his overzealous whipping of members on the Standards Committee over cash for questions. Remember how much pain, even in their pomp, Sir Nick Winterton at Health and Gwyneth Dunwoody at Transport, inflicted on, respectively, the Thatcher, Major and Blair Governments. Much energy was expended on ousting them but to what effect? Ultimately, it really didn't matter.
To that end, seeking to use the upcoming parliamentary recess as cover to oust Lewis from the Committee would be ill-judged and may backfire, prompting a not insignificant backbench revolt. It would pour petrol on the fire that is the constant battle between a mighty executive and civil service and the legislature and it would look spiteful and arrogant. Who really believes this is worth dying in a ditch for?
For now, the Government will need to think in terms of a tactical retreat, not least to focus on bigger priorities and leave the committee, which is fortunate to have an excellent and capable membership across all parties, to do its hugely important work. No one should care about getting mad or getting even. The Government knows that – ironically – it will be on the same page as the committee on Russian collusion and cyber warfare and hurt pride should be no reason to prolong this fractious episode.
And for future reference, they shouldn’t forget the words of Julian Lewis' friend and patron Iain Duncan Smith:
"Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man."
Stewart Jackson was a Conservative MP and Special Advisor from 2005-18 and is founding Director at UK Political Insight