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Tory MP Julian Lewis loses Conservative whip after beating Chris Grayling to chair intelligence committee

He has been a Conservative MP since 1997

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Wednesday 15 July 2020 21:20 BST
Malcolm Rifkind slams PM's 'incompetence' for intelligence committee farce

Conservative MP Julian Lewis has been stripped of the Tory whip after beating Downing Street’s preferred choice to chair parliament’s intelligence and security committee.

Boris Johnson raised eyebrows by endorsing former Cabinet minister Chris Grayling for the role, which is supposed to be independent of the government and elected by MPs.

But in a dramatic vote on Wednesday evening Mr Lewis successfully worked with opposition MPs to secure the chairmanship of the committee.

A senior government source said the action had been taken against Mr Lewis “for working with Labour and other opposition MPs for his own advantage”.

The vote was taken by secret ballot. Mr Grayling was painted by his opponents as a government stooge who would do the bidding of Downing Street on the sensitive watchdog.

The election of the committee’s chairmanship coincides with reports that the prime minister’s controversial adviser Dominic Cummings has taken an interest in intelligence matters and has visited MI5, MI6, and other national security sites.

Mr Lewis, a senior Eurosceptic and member of the European Research Group, has been a Conservative MP since 1997, when he was elected to represent New Forest East. A hawk on defence matters such as renewal of the UK’s nuclear arsenal, he chaired the Defence Select Committee from 2015 to 2019.

Unlike a normal parliamentary committee, the intelligence and security committee is established in law with the purpose of holding the government to account on how it runs MI5, MI6, GCHQ, and its other intelligence agencies. It was first set up in 1994 and had its powers expanded in 2013.

The committee’s evidence sessions are held in private because of the sensitive nature of its work and its membership is chosen by parliament as a whole, with the chair chosen by the committee itself.

Reacting to the news, former home secretary Jacqui Smith described the decision to strip Mr Lewis of the whip as an ”attack on the independence” of the committee, and said it was ”a serious step over the line” for the government.

Shadow justice minister Peter Kyle described the move as “another assault on parliament’s sovereignty”.

SNP defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald, said: “This is another total shambles from the Tory government, which has failed to put in place a functioning Intelligence and Security Committee for more than six months since the election.

“With his abysmal record of failure as a Tory minister, Chris Grayling is the only man who could lose a rigged election but it is right the committee has elected a chair and it should now get on with the crucial job of ensuring scrutiny and oversight of security matters, after months of delay.”

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael said the prime minister had appointed “yes men” to the ISC but “true to form, however, failing Grayling has been undone in his bid to be chair”.

“I hope we now have a committee with real teeth that can hold this government to account,” he added. “That starts by publishing the report into Russian interference of our democracy before the summer recess so MPs can scrutinise it fully.”

A committee source told the Press Association: “This was a secret ballot but clearly for him [Mr Grayling] to lose, some Tories decided not to vote for him.”

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