New Forest East



Daily Mail – 17 July 2020

When Chris Grayling entered the Macmillan Room in the House of Commons on Wednesday, he thought his election as chairman of the intelligence and security committee was a mere formality. But the ex-minister, to whose political career the word ‘hapless’ has been frequently attached, failed to notice a half-smile on the face of fellow Tory MP Julian Lewis.

Then Grayling saw the ballot paper bearing Lewis’s name next to his. He had been ambushed.

Lewis’s audacious manoeuvre could have come straight from the pages of the novel, A Very British Coup, by Chris Mullin. The book, twice turned into a TV series, charts the unlikely rise to Prime Minister of backbench Left-winger Harry Perkins. Lewis demonstrated the same impeccable timing and superior intelligence gathering of Mullin’s hero to snatch the prestigious job from under the nose of a man nicknamed – not always unfairly – ‘Failing Grayling’.

Frankly, it would have been a travesty if Grayling had secured the chairmanship of the vitally important committee that oversees MI5, MI6 and other security agencies. Parliament appoints its nine members from both the Commons and the Lords after considering nominations from the Prime Minister and discussions with the Leader of the Opposition. The chairman should command cross-party support, but Grayling, who quit the Cabinet before he was sacked after the general election, was widely suspected of being eased into the job simply to be Boris Johnson’s ‘yes’ man.

The role requires both expertise and interest in the work of the intelligence agencies, something the ex-TV man has never demonstrated. Even the PM’s own loyalists were concerned at how Grayling’s appointment would be perceived. One former minister told me:

‘Downing Street should not be playing games with national security. Grayling would have been out of his depth and he would not have been scrupulously independent of the PM.’

After a series of calamities during his time running both the justice and transport departments, Grayling is widely seen as one of the most incompetent ministers of modern times.

By contrast, Lewis is impeccably qualified for the role. He’s independent-minded, has served on the committee before, and chaired the defence select committee. When he worked for the Tory party HQ’s research department in the 1990s, he ran the defence and security desks. A hawkish Conservative, he’s spent a lifetime opposing the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, seeing its aims as being at odds with Britain’s long-term security.

In 1982, during a demonstration against the Falklands War led by socialist MP Tony Benn and miners’ union leader Arthur Scargill, he drowned out the speeches by playing the national anthem.

‘He was a great conspiracist and saw “reds” under every bed,’

says a former colleague.

‘It’s why we nicknamed him “Witchfinder General”.’

A lifelong Eurosceptic, Lewis resigned from Tory HQ in 1996 because he felt John Major’s government had not been sufficiently critical of the European single currency. One of his objections to the EU is the fear – some would say paranoia – that a federal Europe would one day be dominated by Germany. Lewis’s family came to Britain from Poland at the turn of the century; many of his relatives were murdered by the Nazis.

Scholarly and eccentric, the softly spoken Lewis is thought to be the only MP who refuses to engage with his constituents or colleagues by email.

‘Letters, phone calls [and], where appropriate, surgery appointments are perfectly adequate for people who genuinely need my help,’

he has said.

‘Only mass manipulative campaigners and obsessive individuals find this a problem.’

As he’s not on email, there was no paper trail this week to alert the Tory whips – who enforce party discipline – that the MP for New Forest East was secretly planning to seize control of the committee. Perhaps he learnt some of the darker arts of the Commons from his long-term friend and ally John Bercow, who stood down as Speaker last year. The two men were both first elected in 1997; Lewis was Bercow’s best man when he married Sally Illman in 2002.

Born in Swansea in 1951, Julian Murray Lewis went to grammar school and Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy and politics. He later received a DPhil in strategic studies and was a Royal Navy reservist between 1979 and 1982.

At 68, he is probably in his last Parliament before retirement. Having now been ejected from the Parliamentary party, the Tory whips no longer have any power to make Lewis toe the line. He is expected to prove a sharp thorn in the side of the Government; some believe he will play havoc with Boris’s plans. A long-delayed report into alleged Russian interference into British politics may now be released as early as next week.

Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary and past chairman of the committee, said:

‘That post should have been filled after the election – not seven months later. Julian Lewis was a distinguished member of my committee, independent, and unwilling to go with the herd.’

Now that independent mind could prove a serious nuisance to Boris Johnson after the PM’s latest miscalculation.