New ISC chair condemns No 10's attempt to impose 'preferred candidate' to lead committee
By Rajeev Syal
Guardian Online – 16 July 2020
The new chairman of parliament's intelligence and security committee has condemned Downing Street's attempt to impose its “preferred candidate” Chris Grayling, hours after being expelled from the parliamentary Conservative party. As the committee confirmed it would publish a long-awaited report into Russian interference in UK politics, Julian Lewis, a senior backbencher, said he did not respond to party whips to vote for Grayling as he considered it to be an “improper request”. The report is expected to be published next Wednesday, it is understood. His comments will pitch Lewis, a long standing supporter of Brexit and the armed forces, against Boris Johnson's advisers who wished to impose Grayling upon the committee. The committee is regularly briefed by the security services and considers some of Parliament's most sensitive information.
Lewis was expelled from the parliamentary Conservative party on Wednesday after securing the prestigious ISC chairmanship with the support of opposition members. The committee confirmed on Thursday it would publish the report into Russian interference in UK politics before the summer recess. In a statement, Lewis said the 2013 Justice and Security Act explicitly removed the right of the prime minister to choose the ISC chairman and gave it to the committee members.
“It was only yesterday 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,”
“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 had explained Lewis's ejection from the party by saying he
“has been told by the chief whip that it is because he worked with Labour and other opposition MPs for his own advantage”.
Johnson nominated five Conservative MPs for the committee last week – giving them a majority – and Grayling was widely expected to become chair. Sources said he and the government were “surprised” by Lewis's decision to stand.
Lewis, the MP for New Forest East since 1997, has twice chaired the House of Commons' defence select committee. He was described by the former national security adviser Peter Ricketts as someone “with much wider experience of defence and security”. In Thursday's statement, Lewis said Johnson had no right to dictate who chairs the committee.
“The 2013 Justice and Security Act explicitly removed the right of the prime minister to choose the ISC chairman and gave it to committee members. I remember this well as I served on the committee from 2010 to 2015,”
“There is no other Conservative MP in the House of Commons with any past experience of working on the ISC.”
Lewis's chairmanship has paved the way for the Russia report, which was sent to Downing Street in October, to finally be released. The report includes evidence from UK intelligence services concerning Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum and 2017 general election. Following speculation the new committee chair, who was widely expected to be Grayling, could delay it further or rewrite it, a short statement from the committee said it would be released within days. A spokesperson for the ISC said:
“The committee has unanimously agreed this morning that it will publish the report on Russia prepared by its predecessor before the house rises for the summer recess.”
The government could seek to remove Lewis from the ISC by tabling a motion to replace him in the Commons, which MPs would have to approve. This tactic could run into trouble. Lewis has many allies on the Tory benches, including those who support increased defence spending. One senior backbench MP told the Guardian Lewis had charm, a quality that many of Johnson's advisers lack.
“Julian Lewis knows how to work the tearoom in a way that Dominic Cummings, who has insulted most MPs at one time or another, has never quite worked out.
When he stood to become chair of the defence committee, he would produce his own handmade leaflets – including photos of himself wearing Navy uniform – and walk MPs to the voting booths with a smile and a pat on the back. People like him.”
The Conservative MP Peter Bone accused Downing Street of having a “huge hissy fit” over Lewis who is “exceptionally well qualified” and will do an “excellent job”. In the Commons, Bone asked if there would be an attempt to remove the new chair.
“Will the Leader of the House confirm that he will not bring forward a motion to remove (Mr Lewis) from the ISC?”
Bone said. Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg refused to rule out any such move:
“[Lewis] was playing ducks and drakes with the Labour Party and that is why the whip has been withdrawn,”
Unlike previous chairs of the committee, the former transport secretary Grayling had little experience of security matters and was dubbed “failing Grayling” for a series of policy blunders during his time in government. The former Tory cabinet minister and ex-chairman of the intelligence and security committee, Dominic Grieve, told BBC's Newsnight:
“What troubles me about this episode – quite apart from its utter absurdity, and now withdrawing the whip from Julian, who is indeed highly respected – is the mindset it gives about what on earth is going on in Downing Street.
Why did they try to manipulate this process? They shouldn't have done.
The committee can only exist, the committee can only be respected ... if it is seen to be non-partisan and independent.”