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With Russia report’s release now imminent, PM’s inner circle is blamed for intelligence committee chair fiasco

Observer – 19 July 2020

Senior Tories are warning Downing St that its increasingly domineering attitude towards its own MPs will backfire, after its “sinister” decision to throw a veteran MP out of the parliamentary party. There have been concerns raised over the treatment of Julian Lewis, who scuppered No 10’s plans by being elected as chairman of parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC).

Since Lewis’s arrival in the role, the committee has agreed to publish a sensitive report into Russian interference in British political life that had been blocked by the government before the last election. The report is due to appear this week. Russia has repeatedly denied interfering, and the Russian ambassador to the UK did so again on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, when he rejected claims that the Kremlin tried to steal Covid-19 vaccine research.

Downing St had been planning to install the former minister Chris Grayling as the ISC’s new chairman, but was blindsided by Lewis’s successful bid for the job, which he won with the support of opposition MPs. However, the decision to strip Lewis of the whip has caused a backlash within the Tory ranks. Many MPs are blaming Boris Johnson’s powerful inner circle for their intolerance for any form of dissent.

A number of concerns have been raised with members of the Tory backbench 1922 committee of MPs. Several figures said concerns had been relayed to the chief whip Mark Spencer by the committee’s chairman, Graham Brady, with many urging Spencer to reconsider. “Reducing the majority is hardly a genius move, but this will backfire in the long run,” said one concerned Tory.

Dominic Grieve, the former ISC chairman who was also removed from the parliamentary party over his Brexit views, said that Lewis’s treatment risked being part of a wider pattern of behaviour from No 10.

“I think that you can see it as sinister, because the only rational explanation may be that the government wishes to politicise every aspect of government activity and parliamentary activity and party politicise it, that nothing else is tolerable and that they wish to exert constant and continuous control over a range of activities, which should be carried out by independent players,”

he said.

“And if they’re doing that to this parliamentary committee, what will they choose to try and do it to next? I think there is a legitimate reason for being very concerned about what they’re doing, even though this seems to me to be the theatre of the absurd.”

MPs also believe that ministers attempted to soften the impact of the Russia report’s imminent publication by confirming that Russian actors “sought to interfere” in last winter’s general election. They pointed to a leaked NHS dossier that was seized upon by Labour during the campaign. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said any attempted interference was “completely unacceptable”. However, one critic said of the sudden admission:

“It’s a bog-standard media ploy, but many governments have used it.”

The dossier is also expected to include an examination of political funding flowing from Russia to Britain and several Tory donors are said to be named in the report. However, the names are likely to be redacted when the report is published. One of the donors expected to be included in the dossier said he had not been given the chance to see its findings before publication.

Electoral Commission records suggest that the largest Russian Tory donor is Lubov Chernukhin. Her husband, Vladimir Chernukhin, served as Vladimir Putin’s deputy finance minister from 2000-2002. She has donated hundreds of thousands to the Tories over the past year, previously paying to play tennis with Boris Johnson and dine with Theresa May. Her donations are completely legal because she is a British citizen.

The long-awaited Russia report was compiled by the ISC under its previous membership. The report was sent to Downing St as far back as mid-October, but its publication was blocked by the government. Critics claim that the delay stopped questions being raised about Russian links to the Tory party before the December election. It took almost seven months after the election for Downing St to nominate new ISC members. It was the committee’s longest break since it was created in 1994. The absence of one of parliament’s most important committees caused cross-party concerns. It is tasked with overseeing the UK’s intelligence community.