By Sebastian Payne
Financial Times Online – 15 July 2020
Boris Johnson removed senior Conservative MP Julian Lewis from the [parliamentary] party on Wednesday night after he worked with rival politicians to defeat Downing Street’s preferred candidate to chair the UK’s influential intelligence and security committee. Mr Johnson had planned to install the former transport secretary Chris Grayling as the new chair of the body, which oversees the work of Britain’s main intelligence agencies, MI6, MI5 and GCHQ.
But in a dramatic Westminster coup, Labour and Scottish National party MPs worked with Mr Lewis, who had only declared himself as a candidate a few hours before the vote, to overturn the government’s majority on the committee and defeat Mr Grayling.
The retribution for Mr Lewis, a Eurosceptic and a former chair of parliament’s defence committee, came swiftly, with Downing Street insiders confirming that the whip had been removed from the veteran MP. When asked why, one senior official said:
“For working with Labour and other opposition MPs for his own advantage.”
The ISC is considered one of parliament’s most important committees and is granted privileged access to the heads of the UK’s security and intelligence services to provide parliamentary scrutiny of the policies, finances and operations of Britain’s spying and counter terrorism operations. One of Mr Lewis’s first tasks will be to oversee the publication of the long-awaited investigation into Russian interference in British politics. The report was completed by the committee in March 2019 but has been held up by delays to the reconstitution of the ISC since the general election in December.
Members of the prestigious committee are nominated by the prime minister, usually in co-operation with the leader of the opposition, but the chair is selected by its members.
Mr Grayling had faced criticism from fellow Conservative MPs for his lack of experience in intelligence and security matters. But Mr Johnson was eager for him to lead the nine-person committee and Conservative party whips urged the five Tories on the ISC to support their pick for chair. In an effort to engineer a Conservative majority on the committee, the government removed Robin Janvrin, a crossbench peer, from the committee.
Despite the move, the four opposition MPs on the committee plotted with Mr Lewis, a former chair of the defence select committee, to defeat Mr Grayling. One senior Conservative MP said the appointment of Mr Lewis as chair came as a surprise as No 10 had “stacked” the committee to ensure that Mr Grayling was elected.
“Shooting fish in a barrel is supposed to be easy. It seems one of these fish shot back,”
The failure to be elected is a setback for the MP dubbed by critics as “failing Grayling” because of a litany of policy failures during his time as a minister, including botched £80m contracts for ferries to assist with a potential no-deal Brexit; the failed privatisation of the probation service; the collapse of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise and lengthy industrial disputes on the railways.
As well as Mr Grayling and Mr Lewis, the committee’s nine members include SNP MP Stewart Hosie; former First Sea Lord Alan West; Tories John Hayes, Mark Pritchard and Theresa Villiers; plus Labour MPs Diana Johnson and Kevan Jones.