By Patrick Maguire
The Times – 16 July 2020
Chris Grayling had no idea what was about to happen come 5pm yesterday. Yes, yes. I know you can say that about 5pm of any given evening. But this was ignorance of a different order. Much like everybody else in Westminster, the former secretary of state for falling upwards and sometime ferry magnate believed that he would wake up this morning as chairman of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, the august organ that oversees the relationship between Westminster and the spooks in MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. It’s a serious job, and one that offers its occupant plenty of opportunity to make life very uncomfortable for Downing Street.
The last chairman, Dominic Grieve, was the qualities MPs usually look for in a chair personified – namely independence of mind. Or indeed a mind full stop. He told Times Radio this morning that he had no idea what No 10 were playing at with such “toddler politics”; but it isn’t difficult to see why this Downing Street rigged the election for Grayling, the sort of fellow traveller who’d have made their lives much easier. While the job of chairman is by law the concern of the committee alone, No 10 had seen that the nine-strong committee had a majority of Conservative MPs – even booting off the mild-mannered Lord Janvrin, a cross-bench peer – and made clear to them that Grayling was their man. Yet he still managed to lose.
Come 5pm last night, Grayling added “losing a rigged election” to his long list of achievements. We’re going to need a bigger Wikipedia page. At the very point Grayling expected to have his coronation confirmed, it was announced by the clerks that there was another candidate. Step forward Julian Lewis. The former chairman of the Defence Select Committee, whose own intentions Grayling hadn’t even bothered to check and whose ambitions probably should have been obvious, had put himself forward as a candidate. The wily Labour MP Kevan Jones had hatched a plan with Lewis. If he broke ranks and ran, Jones would deliver the votes of Labour’s three members and the SNP’s one. So it proved. There’s a reason awed Corbyn-busters in the Parliamentary Labour Party like to say of Jones:
“Thank god he’s on our side.”
Rather than walk down the red carpet to a cushy sinecure Grayling had managed to trip over it and set it on fire. His illustrious tenure as chairman ended as non-existent as the imaginary shipping company he bunged several million pounds to as transport secretary. (Lewis, by the way, is so doggedly opposed to the 21st century that he only communicates by post and landline telephone, so who knows whether he’s even aware that he was elected chairman yet. It was after the last post.) In the circumstances it was difficult not to laugh at Grayling, as the many Tory MPs and ministers who retired to the Commons tea room in fits of laughter last night found. But Downing Street decided it was well worth the effort. They responded not by taking it on the chin but by kicking Lewis out of a parliamentary party whose instincts and eccentricities he embodies. So while still chairman of the committee, Lewis is no longer a Tory MP. Conservative sources muttered darkly of the sacking:
“There are consequences for duplicity.”
That’s, certainly one way of putting it. But a more useful way of looking at it is this: there are consequences for being rubbish at managing your own MPs, as Boris Johnson’s Downing Street increasingly is. Backbenchers who’ve experienced the rough end of Johnson’s administration were sharing the old Lyndon B Johnson quote among themselves last night.
“The first rule of politics”,
one former minister says,
“is knowing how to count. Everyone knew Julian Lewis wanted the chair. Why are the whips surprised?”
The official version of events is that Lewis, a defence nut and certainly the sort of Tory MP you’d expect to sleep hugging a model Spitfire, gave the chief whip, Mark Spencer, an undertaking that he’d back Grayling and ratted on it – which is why some Conservatives aren’t shedding too many tears this morning. But in any case the whips invited the fiasco by nominating not only a novice but Chris Grayling over the closest thing the Tory contingent had to an expert. It doesn’t help that Lewis is precisely the sort of MP who feels they’ve been given a particularly raw deal by this Downing Street. As a recent sacking from Johnson’s cabinet puts it:
“Julian is someone who could have deservedly expected ministerial office and didn’t get it but also who is deeply committed to this security area.”
Dominic Cummings has always been of the view that the government is doing something wrong if it’s not annoying vinegary types like Lewis, and since December his operation has ploughed on as if they don’t actually matter. Yet last night showed there’s only so long you can govern by campaigning against the MPs who make up your majority. Ultimately it’s not Failing Grayling’s ego that matters but the pride of the likes of Lewis. Even a majority of 80 is no insulation against that.
The immediate consequence of No 10’s scorched earth policy will be that the intelligence committee’s report into Russian meddling in British politics, sat on since before the general election, will be published sharpish. Grayling was understood to have been planning a low-key rush job but Lewis, a headbanger of Wayne’s World levels when it comes to combating the threat of Vladimir Putin, will make sure there’s fireworks. And then, of course, there’s Huawei, which is leaving the UK telecoms system a bit more slowly than MPs like Lewis would like. In the longer term, it’s reinforced the view of Tory backbenchers that this Downing Street is not their friend. Usually a landslide cows a parliamentary party. This time it’s had the opposite effect. We’re about to see just how big a number 80 is.