Who Best to Spy on the Spies?

The background to the Lewis-Grayling Commons Intelligence & Security Committee chairmanship imbroglio, and some possible reasons for what really lies behind it.

Note: this article was originally published at The Conservative Woman on Friday 17 July 2020

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

It’s one of the oldest questions in the world, relevant in dictatorships and democracies alike.  Literally meaning “Who will guard the guards themselves?“, it voices the perennial dilemma; who can best be trusted to watch over those whom we in turn trust to watch over us so as to keep us safe?

Now, you might think that someone who successfully ran an undercover operation to get elected as Chair of the House of Commons Intelligence and Security scrutiny committee – thus defeating in the process the reliably compliant stooge whom the Government had hoped to shoehorn into the post – without anyone from the Government knowing or its parliamentary whips finding out, thereby demonstrating both a fine understanding of intrigue and the ability to keep a secret, would possess the ideal qualifications for the job.

Boris Johnson’s Government, however, disagrees.  Because its reaction to New Forest East Conservative MP Julian Lewis’s securing the chairmanship of this important and influential scrutiny committee, by secretly nominating himself and then caucusing with Opposition who subsequently voted for him, was petulantly to accuse of him of duplicity and even withdraw the Tory whip, thus effectively sacking him from the party.

What could have prompted such a fit of childish pique?  Resentment at having been outmanoeuvred, coupled with a sense of entitlement that such a key chairmanship ought axiomatically to be in government hands? Perhaps. Exposure to public view of what was clearly a massive failure of parliamentary management?  Maybe.

Or was it frustration because the unsuccessful government nominee, Chris Grayling, widely known as “Failing Grayling” for being unusually accident-prone and for an unimpressive record both as Transport Secretary and Justice Secretary, but who was also Boris Johnson’s campaign manager in his party leadership bid, had been impliedly promised the chairmanship as a reward?

It can’t be a matter of much dispute that Lewis is eminently more qualified for the role than Grayling, who has been criticised for his lack of experience of Intelligence and Security matters by even his fellow Tory MPs.  In contrast, Lewis, in the manner of Right-leaning long-standing backbenchers whom the Conservative Party’s ‘liberal’ hierarchy finds embarrassing and routinely keeps hidden on the back benches, has tended to make Defence, Intelligence and Security his specialist subject.

Lewis is also a confirmed Eurosceptic and Brexiteer, which may also be a clue as to why his chairmanship seems to be so discomforting to the Party hierarchy, as will be explored further below.

Julian Lewis

In the immediate aftermath, the ‘Conservative’ Party’s anger shows no sign of abating. The much-diminished Jacob Rees-Mogg has accused Lewis of ‘playing ducks and drakes’ with Labour MPs – a curious charge if Number Ten still denies any intention to shoehorn Grayling into the Committee chairmanship – and yesterday refused to rule out the Government blocking Lewis ascension to the role.

Johnson has been warned by senior Tory backbench MPs not to try and remove Lewis from the chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee, or even from membership of it. Clearly, their rebellion earlier this week against the Government for not going either far enough or fast enough on the removal of Huawei from our telecommunications infrastructure has emboldened them.

In the meantime, Lewis has provided his own version of events, stressing that-

  1. the chairmanship of the Committee is a parliamentary appointment and not within the gift of the PM:
  1. he did not give any undertaking to support Grayling: and
  1. contrary to Number Ten’s denial of any interference, it evidently preferred to have Grayling as Chair of the Committee, as Lewis himself received a text asking if he would vote for him.

And as he wryly observes, if it wasn’t the Government’s intention to parachute Grayling as its preferred candidate into the chairmanship, then its decision to deprive himself of the Tory whip for not voting for Grayling looks like a massive over-reaction.

2020.07.16 Julian Lewis statement

So what’s going on?

Well, Eurosceptic and Brexiteer Lewis, I suspect, would be far more likely as Chair to probe and interrogate the Government on the security and intelligence implications of any continuing below-the-radar co-operation and tie-in to with the EU.  And that, of course, might lead to similar probing on any continuing below-the-radar tie-up with the EU’s developing Defence Union and the PESCO mechanism.  Perhaps Grayling, having been rewarded for running Johnson’s successful leadership campaign, could have been trusted to ensure the Committee did not enquire too closely into such matters?

Grayling had also been thought to be much less likely to pressure the Government for an early public release of the 2018 report on alleged Russian interference in British democracy, (although personally, I’ve always suspected this allegation to be yet another desperate attempt by the anti-Brexit, Continuity-Remainer faction of Britain’s political and media establishment to delegitimise both the vote for Brexit and those of subsequent general elections confirming it).

However, the fall-out in that direction from his failure to secure the chairmanship has already started.  In what’s possibly a pre-emptive move, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab yesterday accused the Russian State of hacking UK vaccine research and attempting to influence last December’s general election.

Theoretically, the ‘Conservative’ Party might possibly try to thwart the Lewis chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee, on the spurious grounds that for such a pivotal appointment to be held by an Independent MP not affiliated to any party, much less the governing party, is inappropriate.  In doing so, however, it would risk making itself look even more petulant and dictatorial, as well as making others wonder just what it might be trying to hide.

Its best course would be for the Government to accept a self-inflicted defeat, for MPs to press for the restoration to Lewis of the whip, and for the party console itself that a key Commons committee was in the hands of the MP best suited to the job.

Homo scit exterriti custodes spectemus – only a man who knows guards can watch the guards.

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