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Mail+ Podcast: The Daily Show – 17 July 2020

ANDREW PIERCE: Veteran Tory MP Julian Lewis has been kicked out of the Conservative Party. He's had the whip removed after being accused of colluding with Opposition MPs. He lost the whip after beating fellow Tory MP, Chris Grayling, to the Chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Downing Street had fixed it, they thought, for Mr Grayling to win. Mr Lewis will now sit as an Independent on the Commons benches.

Joining me now is Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who is of course a former Conservative Foreign Secretary and was Chairman of the Commons Intelligence [and Security] Committee from 2010 to 2015. Sir Malcolm, it occurs to me this is a complete Horlicks of a mess that Downing Street …

Sir MALCOLM RIFKIND: I think you're being very polite: and it’s a gross understatement.

ANDREW PIERCE: What would you call it?

Sir MALCOLM RIFKIND: Well, it's difficult to know exactly who is primarily responsible. The Prime Minister must take the ultimate responsibility, and he's been author of his own misfortunes; but what I don't know is whether he insisted on this approach, or whether it is on the advice – misplaced advice – of some of his advisers, and it may be a combination of the two.

ANDREW PIERCE: The point is too, isn't it, the Chairmanship of these Committees should be decided by MPs, by the members of the Committee, not by No.10 Downing Street.

Sir MALCOLM RIFKIND: Yes, but even more so than is the case with the Select Committees of the House of Commons. What is special about the Intelligence and Security Committee is that it is not a Committee of the House of Commons. It is a Committee that was formed by an Act of Parliament. It has a statutory base – and that is because it has the exclusive access to the highly classified, top secret information held by our intelligence agencies: MI6, MI5 and GCHQ. And the purpose of the Committee is independent oversight of our intelligence agencies, because the Government cannot provide independent oversight, even when it's seeking to do so. These agencies answer to the Government – they carry out the tasks the Government sets them.

Now the ISC, the Intelligence and Security Committee – when I took over – I was appointed directly by David Cameron. That was the way it worked until about seven or eight years ago. And the Committee that I chaired did a root and branch review, not just of the powers of the Committee, which we ended up extending quite dramatically, but we wanted also to demonstrate that while the Committee had always in practice been independent, it didn't always look independent to the wider public – including many MPs – because if the Chairman was actually appointed by the Prime Minister, and it looked as if there might be a relationship of dependence.

So we changed the rules and got – indeed, persuaded – David Cameron, who was Prime Minister, to agree to change that in future. While the Prime Minister would recommend the members of the Committee, he would have no role to play as to who its Chairman should be, and that the Chairman would be appointed from amongst their own ranks, by the Committee when it first met, as has happened on this occasion.

And, therefore, the idea that either the Prime Minister, or his advisers, should seek to impose a Chairman, or that the Whips should be used to directly put pressure on Conservative MPs on the Committee to support the person whom the Prime Minister would prefer, is not only – in policy terms – undesirable, it is actually contrary to the Act of Parliament under which the Committee operates, because the Prime Minister has been given no role whatsoever under the Act of Parliament. It's solely a matter for the new members of the Committee to choose, on their first meeting, who will be their Chairman.

ANDREW PIERCE: Also, and I take your point here, with No.10 clearly overreaching itself and it's a control-freak tendency we've seen before in No.10. The other point as well, I would have thought, Sir Malcolm, is that Julian Lewis was impeccably qualified to do that job. He's a former Chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee. He served on the [Intelligence and Security] Committee before, and you know, when John Major was Prime Minister, he served on the Defence Desk in the Conservative Research Department. He's been steeped in intelligence and security all his life.

Sir MALCOLM RIFKIND: Well, that is true. And of course, most important in this context, during the whole five years I chaired the Committee, he was one of the most distinguished members of that Committee and greatly respected both by the other members of the Committee, but also by the intelligence agencies who knew that he was not only a serious and able guy, but that he had an independent streak of mind. He didn't automatically just go with the herd, and he certainly would not be the sort of person who would automatically succumb to Government.

Now, this is not a question of the Intelligence Committee versus the Government. The most important point I want to make – and it's why the rule was changed as regards the appointment of the Chairman – it is because it is terribly important that, if the ISC is going to do its job properly, that it must not only be, but also be seen to be, completely independent of the government

And as long as you have the Prime Minister, either as in the old days directly appointing the Chairman, or, as was attempted on this occasion, thankfully unsuccessfully, to – in practice – choose the Chairman by political pressure of the kind that clearly was used, then the ISC cannot do its job. And it's not only the national interest that suffers from that: if only the Government, if the Prime Minister would realise, it is the Government itself that suffers if the ISC does not carry authority by being truly independent.

Take, for example, as happened during my period as Chairman, if the intelligence agencies were unfairly accused of something they were not responsible for. At one stage they were accused in the Guardian newspaper of deliberately – and this is GCHQ – of deliberately asking the Americans to collect intelligence on various British citizens, because otherwise GCHQ would have to get permission from the relevant Government minister, and didn't want to do that. That was a charge. That was a very serious charge, extremely serious. The ISC immediately initiated an inquiry, a very short but comprehensive inquiry, and we found the allegations were complete rubbish, complete rubbish.

Now, if we hadn't existed, or if we weren't deemed to be independent, yes, GCHQ could have declared its innocence, but would not have been able to prove it, because it would not have been able to reveal the classified documents that showed they were innocent of this charge. But even if the Government said “No, we are satisfied that GCHQ have not behaved in this way”, many people, including, dare I say, some of the media, would say “Well, you'd expect the Government to say that because GCHQ was probably carrying out the Government's wishes in what it's been alleged to have done”.

So you need to have independent oversight, and to be seen to be independent. You cannot have the Prime Minister manifestly, directly or indirectly, seeking to manipulate the Committee by imposing upon it his preferred choice as Chair. So this is not about Chris Grayling – it so happens he was the unfortunate candidate on this occasion – but whoever had been the recipient of an attempt by No.10 to impose their candidate on the Committee, I would be saying exactly what I'm saying now.

ANDREW PIERCE: What does it say, just finally, Sir Malcolm, of the mindset of No.10 Downing Street that, because they don't get their way, they enacted what some might call petty retribution: they've withdrawn the whip from Julian Lewis.

Sir MALCOLM RIFKIND: It worries me; because, you know, actually the last few months have been rotten so far as the Government's understanding and appreciation of the importance of independent oversight of our intelligence agencies. We have not had a Committee able to operate since before the last General Election, which was in December of last year. That's about seven to eight months away.

Now normally, after a General Election, yes, the Prime Minister has to take a little time consulting with the Leader of the Opposition in choosing the candidates to be recommended to Parliament to be members of the ISC. And that normally takes about a month. And even if there are exceptional circumstances perhaps it might have been legitimate for it to have taken two months. I'm trying to be reasonable. So that would have taken us at most to January or February. But this is July, and we've not been given a single convincing reason – in fact we haven’t even been given an unconvincing reason – as to why it's taken so long.

My own view is not that they didn't want the Committee to be operating. I don't think it's as negative as that. I think it’s just that they were indifferent. It wasn't a priority. They had other things on their mind. They had the Brexit issue; then there came the Covid crisis – as if somehow that stopped them for over seven months in choosing nine MPs to recommend to Parliament as members of the Committee. And that sort of alarms me: it was the sheer, I would call it incompetence, but also ultimate indifference, as to carrying out their proper responsibility as regards the most important and powerful Committee that Parliament has at its disposal.

Now, I don't know whether this was what the Prime Minister personally wanted to neglect, or whether – he is obviously an incredibly busy man – so maybe his advisers, his people closest to him, didn't remind him of the long delay that was taking place. Or had anyone done any research – had they actually read the Intelligence and Security Act, the Act of Parliament under which we operate, which gives no role to the Prime Minister in choosing a Chairman? So somebody had better carry the can. Ultimately it will be the Prime Minister, because he has the ultimate responsibility; but I suspect some of the people around him might have either been giving wrong advice or just haven’t done their homework – either of which is pretty reprehensible.

ANDREW PIERCE: Absolutely. That's Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary. Thanks so much for joining us.