Conservative Party MP, Julian Lewis has been elected as head of the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). This is the parliamentary body that monitors the UK intelligence services. However, he is not celebrating.
As a result of his election, Lewis has been censured by the British government in a parliamentary move known as “having the whip withdrawn”. Despite its slightly funny name this is a very serious matter. It means that he is no longer considered a part of the governing party in Parliament, he will not be able to stand as a Conservative Party candidate at the next election and he cannot access any of the services provided to the party whilst he sits in Parliament. In effect his political career is over. It is a sign of serious displeasure by the UK government. If they could have thrown him out of Parliament then they would have.
Lewis’ “crime” was to use his own initiative and stand against the Government’s preferred candidate for the post. This was the Conservative MP Christopher Grayling, a man known as “Failing Grayling” in the British media because of his absolutely appalling record in almost every ministry he has led. Unlike Lewis, Grayling has no relevant experience in intelligence or foreign policy. If this sounds familiar then that is because this is exactly the same issue as the recent appointment of David Frost as National Security Advisor (see below). Frost also had no experience of intelligence matters. Like Grayling, he was chosen purely because he is a member of a particular faction within the Conservative Party and can be expected to ensure that the intelligence services serve the interests of that faction.
Lewis rightly reasoned that if Grayling was appointed as Chair then the ISC would be crippled for the next five years. He decided that the appointment had to be stopped in the interests of national security. He was supported in his candidacy by the ISC members of every other party. It is a victory that may cost him dear. Domonic Grieve, former government minister and former Chsir of the ISC, has described the UK government’s action as “unjustifiable”.
The first test of the ISC’s independence under Lewis will be the release of the long delayed ISC report into Russian interference in UK politics. This was supposed to be released before the last election, but it was blocked by the Conservative government which feared the effect it might have on its election chances – especially those of its pro-Brexit leader Boris Johnson. Dominic Grieve who was Chair of the ISC at the time said that there was “no good reason why the report was not published in October 2019”.
Following this delay, the government was hoping that Grayling would become Chair and that he would then block publication of the report past the impending July recess date (when Parliament breaks for summer holidays). This would have meant that the report would not be released until at least September 2020 – making it effectively worthless. With Lewis in the chair, the government may not be able to get away with this tactic.
Readers should note that it is not thought that the report contains a “smoking gun” that might lead to government resignations. However, it is believed that the report demonstrates that there was a measure of foreign intelligence service support for Brexiteers. The Conservative Party, which is currently dominated by a pro-Brexit faction, hoped that delaying the report would lessen the impact of any revelations that the report does contain and that therefore it would not upset support for Brexit.
The intelligence services of every nation have great power in the digital age. They require robust, fair, but above all, independent scrutiny. The ISC is far from perfect, but at the moment it is all that the UK has. It is a good thing that at least one MP has national rather than party issues at heart. However, this is yet another worrying sign that the independence of the UK intelligence services is under sustained attack. (See Brexit Spies below).