Removing the whip from the veteran Tory for beating their preferred man to be ISC chairman is guaranteed to inflame tensions
By Eliot Wilson
Daily Telegraph Online – 16 July 2020
Yesterday, I wrote in this paper with resigned sadness of the government's attempt to suppress parliamentary scrutiny of itself by engineering the selection of the limp and hapless Chris Grayling as chairman of the powerful Intelligence and Security Committee. It was an affront to the legislative checks and balances, I vented, that such a woeful and pliant figure should be placed at the head of such a sensitive body, especially with the potentially explosive “Russia report” as first item of business on the committee's agenda.
Well, it didn't quite work out like that.
The ISC duly met for the first time this Parliament yesterday, an inexcusable seven months after the general election. But one Conservative member, Dr Julian Lewis, had missed the memo. He reached across the party divide and, with the help of the Labour and SNP members, found himself elected chairman. This was not what Downing Street had planned at all. Cue furrowed brows at the centre of government.
It is worth pausing briefly to say that Dr Lewis is not at all an unreasonable candidate to head the ISC. He has a doctorate in strategic studies from St Antony's College, Oxford, is a veteran of military matters and for four years was chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee. If somewhat spiky and eccentric – he refuses to use email to communicate with his constituents – he is, in security terms, a respected onion-knower.
With its favoured son relegated to spear-carrier, the government could have acknowledged this baring of Parliament's teeth and moved on. After all, Dr Lewis is a Eurosceptic and a “vigorous right-winger”, in this newspaper's description; he is not obviously on the Prime Minister's enemies list. Skilfully managed administrations learn that some battles are worth fighting and others are not, and Mr Grayling's stumble, while embarrassing, was hardly fatal. Shortly after the ISC's meeting, Downing Street was leaning heavily and rather stoically on the argument that the committee chooses its own chairman, an argument which has the added virtue of being true, now in fact as well as in theory. Mop up the blood, wash down the walls and move on. Sic vita est, as the Prime Minister might have observed.
Over the course of the afternoon, it became clear that the matter was not closed. Downing Street announced that, as a result of his conniving with the Opposition members of the ISC to secure the post of chairman, Dr Lewis was to have the Conservative whip withdrawn. He is no longer a member of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, and will now formally sit in the Commons as an independent. It is an extraordinary reaction. Even the most cynical governments try to preserve the fiction that parliamentary committees are independent, and as for working with members of other parties, well, isn't that rather the point of cross-party bodies? The message from Downing Street seemed to be: the committee chooses its chairman, so long as it's the person we select.
Withdrawing the whip from a veteran like Dr Lewis, an MP for 23 years, is a grave matter. Many of his colleagues, already uneasy at the apparent coronation of Mr Grayling, will be outraged at the high-handed treatment of the ISC's new chairman. Let's be clear: he has lost the whip for acting independently within the activities of a parliamentary committee. Think about that for the moment.
With a majority of 80 – or 79, one should say – the government has no immediate concerns about parliamentary management. However, it has reinforced an impression of hostility towards outside scrutiny, and invited antagonism between itself and Parliament. As I have said before, I believe that the Prime Minister and his cherished adviser Dominic Cummings have faced down the media because they have calculated that they can brazen a conflict out. They are now, it seems to me adopting the same approach to Parliament. Yes, they are saying, we don't like you shoving your oar in: and what are you going to do about it?
As I write, there are heated rumours that Downing Street is so furious with Dr Lewis's perceived duplicity that it may seek to remove him from the chair of the ISC. Doing so would probably require an Order of the House, agreed to by the Commons in full at the behest of the Committee of Selection, and would represent the outbreak of total war. Parliament's committee system, much vaunted, rests so heavily for its effective working on cooperation and informal agreement. Removing a committee chairman, because he was not the government's chosen candidate, would tear those careful alliances and accommodations apart, with consequences which are difficult to comprehend.
There is still time to pull back from the brink. Dr Lewis will get over his expulsion, and, in truth, will likely be readmitted to the party in the fullness of time. The government may find that he is not the thorn in its side which it feared, and, after the current conflagration is dampened down, the ISC may well return to its diligent but shadowy work. And yet, it may be that we are in a new era. We know that Dominic Cummings is, to put it mildly, an iconoclast, with a dim view of the public service which, presumably, extends to my former colleagues in the House of Commons. If he really does have the Prime Minister's ear, he may not fear a battle royal with Westminster, and he may calculate that the public might even, to some extent, take his side.
If a good night's sleep has not defused tensions, we may be set for a bloody conflict between the executive and the legislature which could rip scrutiny of the government apart. The question, therefore, is this: does the Prime Minister care?