The intelligence committee rebellion has dealt a blow to Boris Johnson's autocratic style of governing
By Andrew Grice
Independent Online – 15 July 2020
Parliament has delivered a stinging rebuke to Boris Johnson’s autocratic style of governing by rejecting his choice of Chris Grayling as chair of the important Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). The man dubbed “failing Grayling” – a minister who awarded ferry contracts to a company without ferries, banned prisoners from receiving books and whose privatisation of probation was reversed by his own party – was seen as shoo-in for the ISC job.
But after an ambush on the committee of MPs and peers, the post went to Julian Lewis, a right-wing Tory Eurosceptic. In his previous life at Tory party HQ, I remember Lewis as an enthusiastic researcher who spotted many reds under Labour’s bed in the 1980s. But as chair of the Commons defence select committee, he showed an independent-minded streak that made him a more suitable ISC appointment than Grayling, who was widely seen as someone who would not rock Johnson’s boat.
The prime minister’s unexpected setback is of his own making. The unofficial deal between the ISC and the government is that the committee enjoys privileged access to the spooks and classified material too sensitive for other parliamentarians. In return, it doesn’t leak. The system works on the basis of mutual respect, but many MPs think Johnson has not kept his side of the bargain. It traditionally operated by cross-party consent but that was scuppered by Grayling’s nomination and the Tories’ self-serving removal of crossbencher Lord Janvrin, the Queen’s former private secretary. This provoked a successful counter-coup by Labour, the SNP and Lewis, who voted for himself as chair rather than Grayling. In the wake of the vote, Lewis had his party whip removed.
Johnson has sat on the ISC’s report into alleged Russian interference in British politics since last autumn. He delayed setting up the ISC after last December’s general election until this week, which meant the report could not be published. Johnson’s decision to appoint David Frost, a political adviser in charge of EU trade negotiations, as his national security adviser, has played badly with MPs, securocrats and Whitehall because the post has previously been held by a civil servant. So the rebellion against the appointment of Grayling, who like Frost has no security experience, was a neat way for parliament to make a point.
The ISC matters: it oversees the work of the intelligence agencies, including MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. Arguably, it matters even more when the world might be splitting into two camps led by America and China, and when Johnson shows worrying signs of treating parliament and the civil service as agents of a one-party state. Or perhaps even a one-faction state – the Vote Leave one, of course.
It is one thing to appoint a cabinet of yes-men and women who mostly backed Brexit or are long-standing Johnson allies, even if the calibre of some was exposed by the now abandoned Downing Street daily press conferences. But, under the guise of reforming the system, it is another thing to politicise it with people certain to do the prime minister’s bidding. It was the same contempt he showed by suspending parliament for five weeks, only for the move to be overturned by the Supreme Court.
Johnson is discovering that his commanding Commons majority of 80 does not give him carte blanche to ignore the checks and balances that are rightly part of our democratic system.
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'SAY WHAT YOU WANT ABOUT JULIAN LEWIS, BUT BORIS JOHNSON'S OVERREACTION PROVES THE SENIOR BACKBENCHER IS NO STOOGE'
Independent – 16 July 2020
Surely, it is indicative of how quickly we are falling to our political nadir in this country when I feel compelled to write a letter expressing my delight at the appointment of an ardent Brexit supporter to the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
In normal times, Julian Lewis – once described as one of the most vigorous right-wingers in the Commons – would be the last person to get my support on virtually any issue. However, on a purely pragmatic stance, I must congratulate him on usurping Chris Grayling to the post and ensuring that the committee is not reduced to a laughing stock.
Further, looking at the overreaction from our woeful prime minister and his puppet master – by removing the whip from Lewis – it is now confirmed that he is no stooge and it is all but certain that Chris Grayling was preferred purely on the basis that he would act as a Downing Street lackey.
Robert Boston, Kingshill, Kent