United Kingdom

Julian Lewis accuses PM of 'improper' bid to seize control of security watchdog

The new chair of Parliament's intelligence watchdog today accused Boris Johnson of an 'improper' bid to seize control after the PM's favoured candidate was outflanked in a vote.

Julian Lewis hit out after No10 kicked him out of the Tory party in revenge for his dramatic ambush of Chris Grayling last night, which saw him installed as chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

In hours of fevered intrigue, the maverick MP secured the crucial job overseeing MI5, MI6 and GCHQ with votes from Opposition committee members. But he was then brutally stripped of the Tory whip. One government source said: 'There are consequences for that duplicity.' 

In a statement this morning, Mr Lewis pointed out that the PM had no powers to decide the chair.

He said he had received a text message yesterday asking for confirmation he would be voting for Mr Grayling.

'I did not reply as I considered it an improper request,' he said. 'In recent days, the official No10 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. 

'It is therefore strange to have the whip removed for failing to vote for the Government's preferred candidate.' 

One of the first tasks of the new cross-party committee will be to finalise a report on Russian interference in British politics, which has been delayed since the middle of last year amid claims it could be damaging to Mr Johnson.  

Earlier, Conservative former ISC chair Sir Malcolm Rifkind accused the premier of a bungled attempt to try to make the watchdog his 'creature', saying he should sack his advisers.

The wrangling came as No10 chief Dominic Cummings pushes for a major overhaul of defence and security organisation. The No10 chief has visited MI5 and MI6 twice, and is due to go to a series of other sensitive sites soon.  

Mr Grayling had been No10's candidate for the role but a Labour and SNP 'coup' is said to have allowed fellow Tory Julian Lewis to secure the top job instead

Chris Grayling, MP, drives his car through the House of Commons gates this afternoon, smiling and expecting to become the new Head of the Intelligence and Security committee. However, in a surprising development, he was beaten by Dr Lewis

Julian Lewis's full statement on the ISC chair intrigue 

'Because the ISC (Intelligence and Security Committee) is a special committee, I feel constrained in what I can say. 

'However, the following points are relevant: 

'1) 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. 

'I remember this well, as I served on the committee from 2010 to 2015 and took part of the legislation through the Commons myself on behalf of the committee. There is no other Conservative MP in the House of Commons with any past experience of working on the ISC. 

'2) 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. 

'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. 

'3) 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. 

'It is therefore strange to have the whip removed for failing to vote for the Government's preferred candidate.' 

A senior Government source said the removal of the whip was because the MP was 'working with Labour and other opposition MPs for his own advantage'.

Opposition parties lined up this evening to condemn the move against Dr Lewis as 'grubby' and 'psychopath politics'.

Labour former frontbencher Chris Bryant said: 'It's a momentous failure of intelligence when a PM takes months to handpick Intelligence and Security Committee members so as to deliver the Chair he wants and they refuse to do his bidding. To then chuck the new chairman out of the party is to lose control/the plot.' 

Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner branded the move against Dr Lewis 'grubby'.  And the SNP's Angus MacNeil commented: 'We are in the world of psychopath politics... This is utterly jawdropping!' 

But the committee members voted instead for former defence select committee chairman Dr Lewis.

It is thought Dr Lewis had only nominated himself for the role this afternoon after it became clear he would have the backing of all four Labour and SNP votes. 

With the Conservatives enjoying a majority - with five out of nine places on the committee - there had been concern at Westminster that the Tory members would be 'whipped' to support Mr Grayling despite concerns about his expertise.

Former national security adviser Lord Ricketts warned that Mr Grayling - who earned the nickname 'Failing Grayling' during a chequered ministerial career - does not 'match up' to the authority and reputation of former chairs.

Following Dr Lewis's success, Lord Ricketts said the body was now in the 'hands of someone with much wider experience of defence and security'.

As well as Mr Grayling and Dr Lewis, the members of the ISC are Tory MPs Theresa Villiers, Sir John Hayes and Mark Pritchard, Labour MPs Dame Diana Johnson and Kevan Jones, the Labour peer Admiral Lord West and the SNP MP Stewart Hosie.

Mr Johnson has faced criticism over the delay in appointing the committee which has not met since the last parliament was dissolved in November last year.

The committee has yet to publish its long-awaited report into Russian interference in UK politics after Mr Johnson refused to clear it for release before last year's general election.

The Tory leadership took swift action against Dr Lewis after he worked with the opposition to secure himself the chairmanship of the powerful Intelligence and Security Committee

A committee source said: 'This was a secret ballot but clearly for him (Mr Grayling) to lose, some Tories decided not to vote for him.'

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

What is the Intelligence and Security Committee?

The Intelligence and Security Committee was established by the Intelligence Service Act 1994 and its role is to provide parliamentary scrutiny of the security services.

It is seen as one of the most privileged and important committees as it has access to chiefs of the UK intelligence services.

The group itself is formed of 9 parliamentarians drawn from both the House of Lords and House of Commons.

As well as Mr Grayling and Dr Lewis, the members of the ISC are Tory MPs Theresa Villiers, Sir John Hayes and Mark Pritchard, Labour MPs Dame Diana Johnson and Kevan Jones, the Labour peer Admiral Lord West and the SNP MP Stewart Hosie.

The specific oversight the committee has is to examine the policy and expenditure of: the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Headquarters. 

It reports annually to the Prime Minister, but the reports are often heavily redacted due to the sensitive material within them.  

Now the group has a chairman in place, Dr Lewis will be under almost immediate pressure to quickly publish a long-awaited report into Russian interference in UK democracy.

'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.' 

Mr Grayling, the former transport secretary, was Downing Street's pick to take charge of the parliamentary body.   

Mr Grayling had nominated himself yesterday and was said to not be expecting a challenge. 

The former Cabinet minister had been widely expected to win the role after it became clear that he was Number 10's preferred candidate.  

A parliamentary source told Sky News: 'Someone lays out a red carpet for you and you manage somehow to trip over it and set it on fire.'

The ISC, which is tasked with scrutinising the work of the UK's intelligence services, has not been convened since December 2019 after it was dissolved for the general election. 

It elected its members from across the House of Commons and the Lords earlier this week. 

Now that it has a chairman it will be under pressure to quickly publish a long-awaited report into Russian interference in UK democracy.  

SNP defence spokesman Stewart McDonald MP 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 Mr Johnson 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.' 

It comes as Beijing accused Britain of working with the US to 'discriminate, oppress and exclude' Chinese firms and warned of jeopardised relations after Huawei was banned from the UK's 5G network.

Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner (pictured) branded the move against Dr Lewis 'grubby'

Boris Johnson faced a diplomatic backlash on Wednesday in response to his major U-turn over the Chinese tech giant, a move which Donald Trump claimed credit for.

The Prime Minister ordered telecoms firms to remove Huawei equipment from the 5G network by 2027 in a move costing billions and delaying the deployment of 5G by up to three years.

The ban came after a Government-ordered review found the security of Huawei's equipment could not be guaranteed because of US sanctions.

Who is Dr Julian Lewis?

The maverick MP has shocked Westminster tonight after first ambushing Chris Grayling to snag the coveted chairmanship, and has now been booted from the Tory party.

Dr Julian Lewis has served as an MP for New Forest East since 1997, but grew up in Swansea and later studied Philosophy and Politics at Balliol College, Oxford.

He later specialised in strategic studies and was awarded his doctorate in 1981. 

In the late 1970s, he joined the Royal Naval Reserve, serving as a Seaman on the Southampton-based minesweeper called HMS Glasserton. He also campaigned against the infiltration of the Labour party by militants in the same decade.

His first major foray into politics was as a leading opponent to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

While in Parliament he has continued to pursue the retention the country's strategic nuclear deterrent, called Trident.

He later became a Director of Policy Research Associates working with Conservative members of the House of Lords to scrutinise legislation.

He was elected to Parliament in May 1997, and has been re-elected ever since.

In February 2000, Julian was appointed as one of the three Conservative Members of the Select Committee on Defence and in 2002 he became a Shadow Defence Minister.

Dr Lewis is an avid Brexiteer and member of the influential European Research Group (ERG).

Interestingly he is one of the few  remaining MPs who refuses to use email for correspondence. Instead you have to write a letter to him or phone. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying warned in a briefing that the ban 'will only hurt the UK's own interests', adding: 'This is a big world and the UK is just a small part of it.

'Without any evidence the UK under the pretext of risks which don't exist at all cooperated with the US to discriminate, oppress and exclude Chinese companies in violation of the principle of market economy and free trade. This breaches the UK's promises,' she said.

'The UK has made the wrong decision that undermines severely the Chinese company's interests and the mutual trust between China and the UK.

'This is about China facing a major threat in its investment security in the UK and our confidence whether the UK market can maintain openness, fairness and non-discriminatory ... We have severe concerns on that and we remind all Chinese companies to pay attention to the increasing political and security risks.'

Meanwhile in London, China's ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming accused Britain of behaving like a 'junior partner' of the US.

He suggested ministers imposed the ban because they 'had to succumb to pressure' from the 'China hawks and China-bashers'.

Mr Johnson acted on Tuesday after coming under pressure from his own MPs on the Tory backbenches and from Mr Trump's administration as the UK tries to broker a post-Brexit trade deal with the White House.

In a press conference, Mr Trump spoke of having 'convinced many countries' including the UK not to use Huawei.

The US president said: 'I did this myself, for the most part,' adding: 'If they want to do business with us, they can't use it.'

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will fly to the UK for talks next week, expected to cover 5G and China as well as a possible transatlantic trade deal.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock acknowledged the US sanctions played a role in the ban and said trade discussions were also an important consideration, but insisted it was 'a sensible decision'.

'We all know Donald Trump, don't we?' he told Sky News.

'All sorts of people can try to claim credit for the decision, but this was based on a technical assessment by the National Cyber Security Centre about how we can have the highest quality 5G systems in the future.'

Downing Street insisted it was a UK decision in response to the assessment of the sanctions from the US which were 'like nothing we had ever seen before'.

'The US imposed the sanctions, it was then for the NCSC (National Cyber Security Centre) to assess the impact of those sanctions on the security of the UK's 5G network,' the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.

The UK's Government was 'clear eyed' about dealing with China but 'we remain committed to a constructive relationship'.

Huawei, which denies being a security threat, urged ministers to reconsider the move.

Telecoms firms will be banned from next year from purchasing new 5G equipment from Huawei and will have to remove all the Chinese company's kit by 2027.

They are also expected to be ordered to shift away from the purchase of Huawei's equipment for full-fibre broadband networks over a period lasting up to two years.

In January, the firm was given permission to play a limited role in the 5G network.

But Downing Street insiders acknowledged the sanctions imposed by the White House in May were a 'game-changer'.

Ministers ordered a review by the National Cyber Security Centre into Huawei's role in the UK after the sanctions barred Huawei's access to products based on US semiconductor technology.

The NCSC's technical director Ian Levy said products adapted to cope with the restrictions 'are likely to suffer more security and reliability problems because of the massive engineering challenge ahead of them'.

And, he said, it would be 'harder for us to be confident' in their use within the mitigation measures already in place for the 'high risk' firm's equipment.

Meanwhile, GCHQ's protective signals intelligence network is on stand-by to detect and disrupt any attempt by China to mount cyber attacks on the UK in retaliation for the decision.

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