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BBC Radio 4 The World Tonight – 15 July 2020

SHAUN LEY: Scandal and treachery in the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament. The Government’s favourite fails to get the top job, and the Tory MP who ousted him in a coup has the whip removed for colluding with the Opposition. We’ll reveal the full drama [ ... ] At Westminster, Chris Grayling’s ministerial career – whose zenith reached was Cabinet Minister, both for Justice and Transport – earned him the nickname “failing Grayling” Now a backbencher, he has failed again, although it may not be his fault.

Mr Grayling had been appointed by Boris Johnson to serve as Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, one of its Conservative majority. Instead, Julian Lewis, also a Tory, with almost 40 years of involvement in Defence, including as Party spokesman and as Chairman of the All-Party Defence Select Committee, put himself forward and was endorsed by all four Opposition Members. For Mr Grayling, who only had the votes of the three other Conservatives, it was, as if – as one Parliamentary wag put it this evening – “someone rolls out the red carpet for you and you manage somehow to trip over it and set it on fire”.

A popular misconception about the Intelligence and Security Committee of MPs and Peers is that it is another Parliamentary Select Committee, with the same ability to hold Government to account. It’s not, as demonstrated by the delay in releasing its report into Russian interference in UK politics, delivered to the Prime Minister last October and so far still not published. The ISC is the creation of Downing Street. It was first established nearly 30 years ago by John Major when he was PM.

Tonight, in a dramatic rebuke of Julian Lewis, the Government Chief Whip stripped him of his membership of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, because

“he worked with Labour and other Opposition MPs for his own advantage”.

Nick Eardley is our Political Correspondent at Westminster. Nick, is this the whole explanation for today's events: an ill-disciplined Tory MP conspiring with Labour and the SNP for reasons of personal ambition?

NICK EARDLEY: I think it's probably a mixture of that and the fact that this is deeply embarrassing for No.10, for the Government and for Chris Grayling, Shaun. And to take you through the choreography of this: over the last few days we finally got No.10 nominating the Conservatives for this Committee. The Opposition parties put their names in months ago. They all expected Chris Grayling to be elected the Chair. This afternoon around 5 o'clock, the Committee met and the expectation then, amongst the Conservatives, was still that Chris Grayling was going to be the man who got the top job.

Opposition politicians decided that they fancied giving Dr Lewis a run at it, he decided the same, and his vote ultimately tipped the balance. At that point it seemed a mixture of House of Cards and farce. But what ended up happening was that Downing Street was not only embarrassed, but extremely angry as well. The Chief Whip summoned Dr Lewis tonight and told him that he was being thrown out of the Party, not suspended, by the way, but having the whip withdrawn completely.

Now, the explanation from a Government source tonight is that Julian Lewis had told the Chief Whip that he was going to back Chris Grayling [NB: Not true – JL], that at no point did he say that he wanted to go for the Chairmanship, and it seemed deeply disrespectful. However, there are some who think that this now makes the Committee an enemy of Boris Johnson frankly. You have four Opposition politicians who are angry it has taken so long to set up. There is Dr Lewis who now is not a Conservative MP and is probably deeply angry about that, although we've not heard from him tonight. And tomorrow, the Committee meets again to discuss something you were talking about in the introduction there, Shaun: that Russia report, completed last October and still not published. And I suspect that today's events actually make the publication of that report in the coming days much more likely. I wouldn't be surprised if the Committee decides to publish it before Parliament goes on holiday next week.

SHAUN LEY: Intriguing stuff. So there are more twists and turns yet to come. Nick Eardley, thanks very much. This Grayling affair comes hot on the heels of Boris Johnson's decision to replace his National Security Adviser Sir Mark Sedwill, whose diplomatic career was concentrated in countries UK intelligence agencies worry about, with David Frost, a trade expert and former diplomat with no known experience in intelligence or security. Does this potentially suggest an indifference in Downing Street these days to those issues? Lord Ricketts was the UK's first National Security Adviser, when the job was created by David Cameron back in 2010. Lord Ricketts, welcome to The World Tonight.

LORD RICKETTS: Good evening.

SHAUN LEY: You said of Chris Grayling, I think, that he didn't match up to the authority and reputation of former Chairs of this Committee: people like Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Tom King, people like Ann Taylor, and so on. Does Julian Lewis in your judgment.

LORD RICKETTS: Yes – and, if we set aside the Tory Party shenanigans behind this evening, the result is that we now have a Chairman of the ISC, who’s got a much deeper background in defence and security than, with all respect to Chris Grayling, he had.

Dr Lewis has been on the ISC before, he was Chairman of the Defence Select Committee for five years, and he is steeped in a lot of the issues that the Committee will be looking at. So I think that for the national interest it is a good thing to have someone who's got authority, who’s got an independent mind and would be willing to hold the Government to account, to hold the intelligence agencies to account, but also to stand up for them when he thinks that they're coming under unfair criticism.

Yes, I think that, from that point of view, it's a good thing.

SHAUN LEY: So, in terms of his decision to accept, as it were, a nomination for the job, Julian Lewis has kind of put country before party.

LORD RICKETTS: I think the members of the Committee who voted for him, think something like that as well; because this is not, it shouldn’t be regarded as, a sort of reward for a party loyalist.

This is a really important Committee. As you said in your introduction, it started as a creature of Downing Street. It actually has now got some strong powers – it had been strengthened as a quid pro quo for the intelligence agencies getting more intrusive powers in keeping us all safe from terrorism and so on – it was important that there was a strong Parliamentary Committee to provide oversight and hold them to account. It’s got an important role in checks and balances.

SHAUN LEY: When you take the decision to get Chris Grayling the Chairmanship – and nominate him, admittedly, with expectations that he would become Chairman – when you take it in conjunction with David Frost’s appointment and Mark Sedwill’s departure, I just wonder if that gives you any cause for concern about this sort of interest and attitude in Downing Street towards matters of security and intelligence?

LORD RICKETTS: The concern it gives me is that the appointment seems to be made – or in the case of Mr Grayling they tried to make it – on the grounds of political loyalty rather than depth of experience and authority to do the job. And for the National Security Adviser, as you say, who had been a civil servant until this point, somebody who spent a lot of his career dealing with these issues, to put in somebody who was a political loyalist to the Prime Minister, but with no great background, I didn’t think was a good thing at a time that the world is dangerous and we are doing an integrated review of our Defence policy.

And the ISC, if it is to have a reputation in Parliament, with the intelligence agencies and beyond, and be prepared to ask the really difficult questions – as Dominic Grieve did over rendition and mistreatment of detainees – and with the Russia report that still languishes in the in-tray somewhere in Downing Street – I agree with your Correspondent that it is likely to come out quickly now – we need an ISC that has got authority and has got a Chair who is prepared to follow where the facts go.

SHAUN LEY: Lord Ricketts, UK’s former and the first National Security Adviser, thank you very much for joining us.