The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is one of the most powerful and important committees in Parliament. It oversees the workings of the UK’s spy agencies, and the Chairship is one of the most prestigious backbench jobs in the Commons. Previous chairs have included former Foreign Secretaries like Margaret Beckett and Malcolm Rifkind, and most recently former Attorney General Dominic Grieve. It prides itself on its independence, which is enshrined in law. So why did the Government try to parachute loyalist Chris Grayling into the role when this committee is supposed to be beyond the purview of the Whips?
Conservative MP Julian Lewis, with the backing of the opposition members of the committee, snatched the Chairship from right under Grayling and No 10’s noses. Although when Grayling appeared to be a shoo-in, the Government always insisted (rather feebly) that the choice of chair was always a matter for the committee members. This is in fact the case: the Committee is specifically meant to be free of interference from the Government and from whipping. But when the Committee members chose someone else, No 10 lashed out by stripping the whip from Lewis.
Was this a proportionate response? Presumably the Conservatives on the committee were nominated with an understanding they would vote for Grayling as the Government wished, and indeed Tory whips are now briefing about Lewis’s apparent ‘duplicity’. But in reality, this just comes across as yet another heavy handed response from a Government that is unable to tolerate criticism and opposition, and even wants to exert control over a committee that exists to challenge and hold the Government to account. Whether it is the Brexit rebels fighting against no deal pre-election, or Sajid Javid’s refusal to sack his own spads, or Sir Mark Sedwill being replaced by a political appointee, this Government has fully embraced the Cummings approach that tolerates no opposition and no dissent. Given the size of the Conservative majority in the Commons right now, insisting that the Government continues to dominate every aspect of Parliamentary independence and oversight smacks of an insecure and fearful leadership.
The ISC is one of Parliament’s most important watchdogs, and the Government’s delay in setting it up post-election was met with raised eyebrows given the as-yet-unreleased ISC report into Russian interference in British politics is thought to be embarrassing to the Conservative Party. No Government should be playing politics with a committee of this stature, but this Government is thin-skinned enough to do so. Fortunately, the new Chair of the Committee is certainly not a party-man.