By Francis Elliott, Political Editor
The Times – 17 July 2020
Boris Johnson has backed off from trying to unseat Julian Lewis as head of the intelligence and security committee. Mr Lewis was elected to the position with the help of Labour and SNP MPs on Wednesday. The prime minister, who had wanted Chris Grayling to be made chairman, stripped Mr Lewis of the Conservative whip and has the option of tabling a Commons motion to remove him from the ISC. Mark Spencer, the chief whip, was said to be weighing up whether to put Mr Johnson’s authority to the test. Senior MPs, however, urged Mr Johnson not to risk the humiliation of losing the vote.
“There are strong views on either side,”
a cabinet source said.
The decision to strip Mr Lewis of the whip leaves the Tories without a majority on the independent nine-member committee, which oversees the intelligence agencies. Yesterday it met under Mr Lewis to agree the publication next week of the long-awaited report on Russian interference in British politics. James Brokenshire, the security minister, defended the decision to take the whip away.
“Ultimately it’s for the ISC to establish its chair,”
he told Times Radio.
“The chief whip has taken his decision on party discipline and that’s a matter for him.”
Some members say that Mr Grayling had made plain that he wanted the report to be published today, when the Commons is not sitting, had he been elected chairman. Instead it will be published on Tuesday or Wednesday, which could mean Mr Johnson is asked about it at prime minister’s questions. Mr Lewis denied claims that he had misled Mr Spencer. He said that the Justice and Security Act 2013 had explicitly removed the right of the prime minister to choose the ISC’s chairman and given it to the committee members.
“It was only [on Wednesday] afternoon that I received a text asking me to confirm that I would be voting for the prime minister’s preferred candidate for the ISC chair,”
Mr Lewis said in a statement.
“I did not reply as I considered it an improper request. At no earlier stage did I give any undertaking to vote for any particular candidate.”
A senior government source said Mr Lewis had lost the whip because he had been
“working with Labour and other opposition MPs for his own advantage”.
Mr Lewis said:
“In recent days, the official No 10 spokesman explicitly denied that the government was seeking to parachute a preferred candidate in to the chair, stating that it was a matter for the senior parliamentarians on the committee to decide.”
Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative MP who chairs the defence committee, told Times Radio:
“It doesn’t make the party look good and it doesn’t make the government look good.”
Sir Charles Walker, a vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said:
“I really hope that the wider House of Commons is not asked to become involved in this dispute.”
Another senior Tory MP, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the incident as a “howling f***-up” that would be made worse if Mr Johnson sought to force MPs to vote for the removal of Mr Lewis. The source said:
“Nothing would more effectively crystallise the opposition on the back benches they appear determined to foment. There’s nothing worse in politics than looking like an ineffectual bully.”
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Tory foreign secretary and former chairman of the ISC, told BBC Radio 4’s Today:
“The prime minister or his advisers have handled this in an extremely incompetent way. If they had succeeded, that destroys the whole purpose of the [ISC] ... whoever is advising him deserves to be stripped of their responsibility.”