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Sir Malcolm said the incident had been handled in an “extremely incompetent way”

By Sophia Sleigh, Political Reporter 

Evening Standard – 16 July 2020

Former Tory Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind has torn into Boris Johnson after he kicked an MP out of the Conservative parliamentary party over a committee row. Conservative MP Julian Lewis was booted out of the parliamentary party last night after he beat former Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to become chair of the powerful Intelligence and Security Committee.

The news stunned Westminster as Mr Grayling was widely expected to get the role after being handpicked by Mr Johnson. However, concerns were raised that the body's impartiality could be undermined and MPs backed Mr Lewis. Sir Malcolm, a former chair of the committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

“The Prime Minister is the author of his own misfortune.

The act of Parliament is quite clear the Prime Minister has no role in the choice of the chairman of the committee. Once the committee has been appointed it is for the committee itself to decide its chairman.

The idea of using the Whips to try and force Conservative members to vote for a particular candidate goes totally against the way the committee under statute has operated since it began. It’s never been a partisan committee, I think the Prime Minister has handled this – or his advisers whoever is dealing with it – in an extremely incompetent way.”

A Conservative source said Dr Lewis had worked with Lib Dems, Labour and others for his own advantage, adding:

“There are consequences for duplicity.”

Sir Malcolm said the idea that what Mr Lewis had done was somehow improper was “ridiculous”. He said Dr Lewis was “infinitely more suitable” for the post than any of the other potential candidates and added:

“What I most object to, was the attempt of Prime Minister and the Government or whoever, Dominic Cummings, whoever is involved in these things I don’t know, to try to control the way the intelligence committee operates by choosing for its chairman and putting pressure on MPs to make him chairman.

If they had succeeded, that destroys the whole purpose of the Intelligence and Security Committee. It is a unique committee. They are the only people who have access to the highest levels of intelligence. They need the confidence of the intelligence agencies and of Parliament. If they are thought to be creatures of government they have no authority to do the job that the law requires them to do.

The Prime Minister either should have known that or should have been advised of that, and whoever is advising him deserves to be stripped of their responsibility at this very moment.”

A senior government source said the removal of the whip was because the MP was

“working with Labour and other opposition MPs for his own advantage”.

One of the first jobs of the newly formed committee will be to publish its long-awaited report into Russian interference in UK politics.

This morning Business Secretary Alok Sharma refused to be drawn on the decision to remove the Tory whip from Dr Lewis, saying:

“That is a matter for the whips, that is not something for me.”

He added:

“The whole point of that committee is to provide oversight, to provide scrutiny, and that will continue. With reference to any individuals in the parliamentary party, I can only repeat that that is really a matter for the whips rather for me. I have not been involved in any of these discussions.”