The Government’s attempt to rig the ISC Committee election backfired…
So much so that the Russia Report is now to be published in the coming days.
Words by William Cooper.
Dr. Julian Lewis, Conservative MP for New Forest East, is probably not a name that many people would have heard before last Wednesday. A Tory backbencher since his first electoral victory in 1997, Lewis has never sought a cabinet position, but has twice chaired the House of Commons Defence select committee and is well-renowned for his experience in such field.
Then, last week, Lewis was has the spotlight thrust upon him, a he was appointed Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), beating his fellow committee member and №10 favourite for the position, Chris ‘failing’ Grayling. Such anger was felt by №10, who had hoped to impose Grayling as their “preferred candidate”, that as Lewis was elected Chairman, he was simultaneously stripped of the party Whip, making him no longer a member of the Tory Parliamentary Party. This was clearly an instinctive move by №10, who are not inexperienced in removing the Whip from MPs if they do not tow the party line.
However, the government have since come under scrutiny for removing the Whip from Lewis, which was seen as deeply unnecessary and outright nefarious. The ISC, as described by Dominic Grieve (ISC Chairman 2015–2019), is a “non-partisan committee”, which includes MPs from across the House. Government MPs are nominated by the Prime Minister, and opposition MPs are nominated by their party leaders, and then negotiated with the Prime Minister before the Committee is ratified and eventually forms.
When they do form, and in accordance with Chapter 1:6 of the Justice and Security Act 2013, “A member of the ISC is to be the Chair of the ISC chosen by its members”. No external influence is permitted in the election of the Chairman, therefore “the government was [clearly] in breach of the statute in seeking to interfere” with the ISC election, according to former Speaker of the House, John Bercow.
Julian Lewis’ appointment as Chairman defied the government’s plan to coerce the ISC and appoint Chris Grayling instead. The former Transport Secretary, who is held in contempt by many MPs and seen merely as a “patsy for Boris Johnson and №10”, has managed to make every department he has lorded over more incompetent than it was before. Indeed, John Bercow stated that “anything he touches turns to disaster”.
Lewis on the other hand has been described by many in a far more favourable light. Peter Kyle MP told ITV’s Robert Peston that Lewis was “steeped in military experience” and that he is not a government favourite, because the government incidentally “hate people who are independently minded, and follow the evidence”, which Lewis evidently does. John Bercow described him as “spectacularly well qualified” and stated that the government’s attempt to rig the ISC election was “frankly outrageous”. Lewis is seen by many as “one of the most instinctively Tory members of the parliamentary party” and is an ardent Brexiteer.
The government’s attempt therefore to appoint Grayling as chair of the ISC was fundamentally wrong and unlawful, yet the government saw it as essential to obtain, as it would mean that both Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings could wholly manipulate the committee through Grayling.
However, more importantly and definitely more sinisterly, it would mean that the government could shelve the long-awaited ISC report which investigated the degree of influence that Russia has exerted over the operation of UK politics in recent years (simply known as the Russia Report). However, Grayling’s inability to become Chairman of the committee, in an election which the government rigged in his favour, shows firstly the general incompetence of the man, but also the final nail in the government’s coffin, who have delayed the report since October 2019.
Following Lewis’ appointment, a day later, the ISC finally announced that the long-awaited Russia Report was due to be published for public consumption before Parliament rises for recess on the 22nd July. According to Dominic Grieve, who commissioned and led the investigation, the report has been ready since March 2019, but firstly had to undergo routine ratification processes.
The report was cleared by all security services and agencies involved, before being sent to Boris Johnson in October 2019 to be signed off before being published. However, since October, the report has been blocked by №10 until now, in July 2020. The government have provided reasons for blocking the report, reasons which Grieve has described as “wholly incredible” and “utterly bogus”. Grieve has argued that there was “no valid reason for it not to be published before the election” in 2019.
Of course, there have been no leaks providing insight into what the report, which should be published in the next two days, contains. The committee meets in secret, and all material that they use to compile their reports is strictly classified. However, due to the government blocking the report, and then trying to rig the election of committee who is to release it, it doesn’t take long to imagine the contents of the report.
All Dominic Grieve has said is that the report is based on a “wide-ranging inquiry” which investigates the “threat [that] Russia poses to the UK”, and offers countermeasures which hope to control and decrease the threat level. Other than that, the report is completely sealed.
The government have tried to block this report for nearly a year now because they understand that the contents will not do them any favours. The government disapproval rating is at 44%, a figure which has been holding fairly steady since early May 2020. This report will only increase this figure. There is much speculation around the contents of the report and how it will affect the government.
Whatever is in the report, the government will likely ignore and denounce it entirely. They will resist the urge to be drawn into a debate with their opposition and the media over it, which will only lead to them digging a deeper hole for themselves.
They have and will continue to also ignore last week’s events, which saw true democratic irony overrule executive coercion. Lewis’s position now presents a grave threat to the government, for Lewis is popular among the Conservative party, especially among his fellow backbenchers who the government duly call upon in a crisis.
That support is now waning, as “MPs across the House tend to react very badly to attempts by the Executive to erode the power of the legislature with cunning plans”. Johnson’s majority remains strong in number, however due to the incompetence he has transparently shown throughout his leadership, including his most recent attempt to infiltrate a secret and classified committee, the real strength of his majority is fading fast.