Russia report on influence in UK politics to be published within days, says intelligence committee

Publication follows nine months of delay after explosive dossier was handed to Boris Johnson

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Rob Merrick
Thursday 16 July 2020 12:00
Boris Johnson heckled by Question Time audience as he dodges questions on Russia report

The long-delayed report into Russian influence in UK politics is to be published before parliament breaks up for the summer on 22 July, the Intelligence and Security Committee has announced.

The unanimous decision by the nine-member cross-party committee comes a day after Boris Johnson was humiliated by the defeat of his chosen candidate to chair the influential committee, former cabinet minister Chris Grayling.

Mr Johnson expelled long-standing Conservative MP Julian Lewis from the party whip on Wednesday after he successfully stood against Mr Grayling in a vote of ISC members - just days after Downing Street insisted that it was for the committee and not the prime minister to select its chair.

Dr Lewis today condemned as "improper" No 10's attempt to install the former cabinet minister, nicknamed "failing Grayling" after a series of mishaps as justice and transport secretary.

In a statement after its first meeting under Dr Lewis's leadership, the ISC said: "The committee has unanimously agreed this morning that it will publish the report on Russia prepared by its predecessor before the House rises for the summer recess. There will be no further comment."

The report, completed last March under Dr Lewis's predecessor Dominic Grieve and presented to Mr Johnson in October last year, is understood to contain details of the Kremlin's attempt to gain influence in the higher echelons of UK politics and to affect the outcome of votes like the 2016 EU election.

 


Mr Johnson's determined efforts to delay its publication - first by refusing to clear it for publication before December's general election and then by waiting seven further months before nominating new members to the ISC - have sparked speculation that it contains highly embarrassing details of links between wealthy Russians and the Conservative Party.

New Forest East MP Dr Lewis said he did not respond to a call to vote for Grayling in yesterday's ballot, as the 2013 Justice and Security Act explicitly removed the right of the prime minister to choose the ISC chairman and gave it to the committee members.

“It was only yesterday afternoon that I received a text asking me to confirm that I would be voting for the prime minister’s preferred candidate for the ISC chair,” he said.

“I did not reply as I considered it an improper request. At no earlier stage did I give any undertaking to vote for any particular candidate.”

A senior government source said Dr Lewis had had the Conservative whip withdrawn because he had been “working with Labour and other opposition MPs for his own advantage”.

However, Dr Lewis said Downing Street had publicly declared it did not have a favoured candidate for the post, despite widespread reports of a whipping operation to get the Tories on the committee to vote for Mr Grayling.

“In recent days, the official No 10 spokesman explicitly denied that the government was seeking to ‘parachute’ a preferred candidate in to the chair, stating that it was a matter for the senior parliamentarians on the committee to decide,” he said.

“It is therefore strange to have the whip removed for failing to vote for the government’s preferred candidate.”

Mr Johnson’s choice of Mr Grayling to head the ISC – which oversees the work of the intelligence agencies MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – drew heavy criticism from across the political spectrum because of his lack of experience in security matters.

Malcolm Rifkind slams PM's 'incompetence' for intelligence committee farce

In contrast, Dr Lewis is a former chairman of the Commons Defence Committee who has taken a close interest in defence and security issues throughout his time in Parliament.

In a further blow to the Prime Minister, Dr Lewis’s local Conservative association declared its “full support” for the MP.

In a statement, the chairman of New Forest East Conservatives, James Hartley-Binns, said: ”Julian has acted no differently to when he democratically won the chairmanship of the Defence Select Committee in 2015.

“Our association is therefore disappointed and dismayed in any attempt to remove the party whip”.

Former ISC chair Sir Malcolm Rifkind blamed Mr Johnson’s “incompetence” for the farce that saw his hand-picked choice for the chair defeated.

“I think the prime minister is the author of his own misfortune,” said the Conservative former foreign secretary.

It was set down in an Act of Parliament that the chair was chosen by the nine nominated members, with No 10 having “no role”, he explained.

“The idea of using the whips to try and force Conservative members to vote for a particular candidate goes totally against the way in which the committee has – under statute – operated since it began,” Sir Malcolm said.

“The prime minister or his advisers, whoever was dealing with it, has handled this in an extremely incompetent way.”

The committee is seen as increasingly important as the intelligence agencies gain stronger powers to intercept and hold data, and amid growing concerns about the activities of Russia and China.

Its members are given privileged access to classified information and receive confidential briefings security chiefs, but decide themselves – in secret – which controversies to pursue.

No 10 thought it had secured the chairmanship for Mr Grayling – despite anger over his gaffe-prone record and lack of intelligence background – by arranging a Tory majority on the committee.

But it was blindsided by Dr Lewis, who prizes his record as an independent thinker, quietly winning the backing of the three Labour and one SNP members.

Sir Malcolm said he did not know if Mr Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings was behind the original plot, but added: “If it had succeeded, that destroys the whole purpose of the intelligence and security committee.”

“Whoever is advising him deserves to be stripped of their responsibility at this very moment.”

 

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