Julian Lewis strikes a blow for parliamentary integrity

The government thinks it should control MPs’ behaviour. The new chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee has shown not everyone agrees

July 16, 2020
Official parliamentary portrait of Julian Smith
Official parliamentary portrait of Julian Smith

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC)—a joint Commons and Lords committee that scrutinises the work of the intelligence agencies—has a new chair. But despite the great effort the government seems to have gone to in recent weeks to ensure that members of the committee elected its own choice—former minister Chris Grayling—to this prestigious position, the new occupant of the role is… Julian Lewis.

Lewis, a former chair of the Defence Committee, is now also a former Conservative MP, having had the whip removed for the audacious crime of nominating and voting for himself, and being supported by the four opposition members of the committee. Without Lewis’s vote—which he had apparently promised the chief whip he would give to the government’s choice—Grayling could muster only four votes: his own and those of the three remaining conservatives.

The government’s swift retribution against Lewis is another illustration of its view that its substantial Commons majority should give it control over every aspect of parliament and its business. Lewis’s decision to stand against Grayling demonstrates that not all of its MPs subscribe to that view.

The law which, unusually for a parliamentary committee, underpins the ISC—the Justice and Security Act 2013—specifies that the committee elects its own chair from among its members. Those members are appointed by parliament on the recommendation of the prime minister, in consultation with the leader of the opposition. In the recent past the importance of the non-partisan status of the committee had been reflected by the fact that no party had a majority of members. That meant a committee vote for its own chair was a credibly independent choice.

The reason the government was so keen to have Grayling chair the ISC is unclear… theories abound. But in its anxiety to achieve this outcome the government not only (reportedly) selected just conservative members who had vowed to support Grayling, but also abandoned the past convention regarding the ISC’s membership, ditching a proposed crossbench peer in favour of a Tory.

The government’s attempt to impose its own choice, rather than following an established precedent of letting MPs decide, is of a piece with other recent moves it has made to impose its will on parliament.

One example was the ill-thought-through decision, taken in May, to abandon remote voting in the Commons. The government pressed ahead with a vote on this issue despite the fact that around 200 MPs who were unable to travel to Westminster due to coronavirus (presumably among those most benefitting from the remote system) were unable to participate.

Back in March, despite vocal objections from cross-party committee chairs, the government nominated a backbencher—Bernard Jenkin—to join all the elected committee chairs on the high-profile Liaison Committee responsible for scrutinising the prime minister, even though he held no such position himself. It then whipped its MPs to ensure he would become its chair—a choice which had previously been for the committee to make itself. Whatever Jenkin’s credentials, the fact that the government engineered his elevation has weakened the credibility of the Liaison Committee and created doubt about its ability to conduct robust and independent scrutiny.

The same would have been true of an ISC chaired by Grayling had the government succeeded in its attempt to install him. Instead, by abruptly withdrawing the whip from Lewis, the government has bolstered his credibility as chair of the ISC and, at the same time, removed the government majority it had so carefully engineered for itself on the committee.

A government with a healthy majority should be able to get its way in parliament most of the time, and certainly pass the legislation it committed to in its manifesto. But trying to control every aspect of how parliament goes about its business is a mistake. Not only is it inappropriate for the government to dictate who should lead the scrutiny of its own policies and decisions, backbenchers resent having every choice circumscribed by the executive. And that can lead to unexpected outcomes, as Lewis has just proven.