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The government has mishandled the appointment of the ISC

Chris Grayling was reportedly in the frame for months as Boris Johnson’s preferred choice as the next chair of the independent Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament. Press reports to that effect often missed one crucial detail: the ISC elects its own chair from amongst its members.

The clue is in the description of the committee as ‘independent’ of government.

In truth, the prime minister exercises greater control over the composition of the ISC than other parliamentary committees.– Joe Devanny

Whilst other parties can propose nominees, these must be acceptable to the government and undergo a security clearance process. The process can also be bizarrely protracted: the ISC is only now reconvening, after closing down its previous iteration before the December 2019 general election. Similarly, the PM can choose how to compose the committee, choosing this week to appoint only one peer, removing the cross-bench peer who had been a regular fixture in previous iterations of the committee.

This conspiratorial view had legitimacy for a few hours yesterday as the ISC did indeed humiliate Grayling by selecting his (better-qualified and infinitely less controversial) Conservative colleague, Dr Julian Lewis, as the chair instead. So far, so consistent with the ‘cunning plan’ thesis. But then, drama! It was reported that Lewis had been removed from the parliamentary Conservative party, in punishment for colluding with the opposition members of the Committee to beat Grayling to the chairship. (Disclosure: As well as being an MP, Lewis is also a visiting fellow in my Department.)

At once petty over-reaction and tactical error, №10’s treatment of Lewis indicates both a failure to grasp the public relations benefit of Lewis’s appointment for the independence of the committee and the perception that withdrawing the whip from Lewis validated suspicion that the government’s aim all along was to undermine the ISC’s independence by packing it with Conservative MPs and designating a (presumably grateful) preferred candidate to be the Committee’s chair.

Why does any of this matter? The ISC is the committee that had produced a report on Russian influence in the UK that №10 failed to clear for publication prior to the 2019 general election, reportedly because of fears that the report might prove to be awkward and embarrassing for the Conservative party. More structurally, the ISC is the committee that oversees the work of Britain’s intelligence and security agencies.

The fact that a committee with such a sensitive portfolio can be dormant for eight months is embarrassing for anyone who cares about effective legislative scrutiny. – Joe Devanny

That the government tried and failed to appoint a preferred candidate to chair it, and felt sufficiently confident to publicly punish the disloyalty of a more independent-minded Conservative MP for pursuing the chairship for himself, further brings into disrepute the government’s treatment of the ISC and apparent respect for the integrity of its independence.

Over the coming weeks and months attention will focus on Lewis’s performance as chair, an early test being how the committee handles the publication of the Russia report. If №10 is prudent, it will recognise that its punishment of Lewis is only likely to reflect badly on the government. A U-turn and re-admission of Lewis to the warm embrace of the parliamentary party would seem to be the sensible course of action. Anything else will indicate a poisonous break in the relationship between the government and one of parliament’s most sensitive committees.

Dr Joe Devanny is Lecturer in National Security Studies at the Department of War Studies, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Doctoral Studies, King’s College London.

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