In Depth

Why everybody’s talking about Chris Grayling and the intelligence committee coup

The ‘cloak and dagger operation’ could shake loose a long-awaited report into Russian interference in UK politics

The committee responsible for supervising British secret agents has spun its own web of intrigue by pulling off a “very British coup” against the man chosen by Boris Johnson to become the parliamentary body’s leader.

What happened?

Chris Grayling, the former cabinet minister, had seemed certain to be the next chair of the powerful Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which has access to classified intelligence.

“Mr Johnson had picked Mr Grayling, and given the Conservative majority on the committee, his election had appeared to be a formality,” The Times reports. At the last minute, however, a veteran Conservative backbencher swooped in yesterday and secured the backing of all the opposition members.

“Grayling was a picture of incredulity and puzzlement as he saw Julian Lewis’ candidacy in black and white next to his, before the swift realisation kicked in that he had been outmanoeuvred,” says HuffPost.

Grayling voted for himself, as did three other Conservative committee members. The four opposition members - three Labour and one SNP - backed Lewis, who also voted for himself and duly won by five votes to four.

“To lose an election on which your side has got a majority is to take incompetence to another level,” an unnamed MP told The Times.

Downing Street immediately withdrew the whip from Lewis - effectively expelling him from the party - on the grounds that he had “worked with Labour and other opposition MPs to his own advantage”, The Guardian reports.

Why was Grayling unpopular?

“Grayling had been the prime minister’s choice for months, but his appointment was controversial even amongst Conservatives because of his error-prone record as a cabinet minister,” says The Guardian.

Among other failures, the paper explains, “he presided over the collapse of Northern and Thameslink rail services and the granting of a no-deal Brexit ferry contract to a company with no ships”.

Johnson’s support for Grayling had been interpreted as an attempt by No. 10 to exert executive control over Parliament and evade scrutiny of its decisions - particularly the decision not to publish a report on alleged Russian interference in British elections.

MPs’ willingness to rebel may have been heightened by the removal of Mark Sedwill, a senior civil servant, from another national security post - and his replacement with a political loyalist.

“Johnson’s decision to appoint David Frost, a political adviser in charge of EU trade negotiations, as his national security adviser, has played badly with MPs, securocrats and Whitehall because the post has previously been held by a civil servant,” says The Independent’s political columnist Andrew Grice.

“So the rebellion against the appointment of Grayling, who like Frost has no security experience, was a neat way for Parliament to make a point.”

“Tory whips were furious, and No. 10 more furious still at this very British coup,” says HuffPost, but MPs on all sides appear to be delighted.

One “high-ranking” Conservative backbencher told The Telegraph that “folk are mostly just laughing at Grayling and the incompetence of No. 10”.

Why does it matter?

The ISC is “arguably the country’s most important parliamentary watchdog”, says HuffPost.

The committee “scrutinises the intelligence and security services”, adds The Times, and “holds the decision over when and whether the delayed Russia report is published”.

But the rejection of the PM’s chosen candidate has a broader significance, says The Telegraph. The “cloak-and-dagger operation” was hailed by MPs “as proof of Parliament ‘fighting back against an overpowering executive’”.

Who is Julian Lewis?

He may look like an unlikely rebel, but “Maverick is his middle name”, says HuffPost.

A “right-wing Tory Eurosceptic”, Lewis nevertheless “showed an independent-minded streak that made him a more suitable ISC appointment than Grayling, who was widely seen as someone who would not rock Johnson’s boat”, according to The Independent’s Grice.

Lewis also “has long experience of security and intelligence issues”, having chaired the Defence Select Committee, sat on the ISC for five years and been in the Navy reserve, adds HuffPost.

What happens next?

While No. 10 could seek to overturn the committee’s decision and install new members, such an intervention is considered to be unlikely.

Instead, says The Times, “Downing Street now risks losing control of the committee, which could bring forward the controversial report into alleged Russian interference” for publication as soon as next week.

“The document examines Kremlin interference in British public life,” The Guardian explains. “Earlier this week, the senior Labour MP on the committee, Kevan Jones, said ‘there was no reason why’ it could not be released by next Wednesday.”

Although Downing Street has said the document is “relatively anodyne”, the newspaper adds, “others who have read it say there is considerable detail of interest worth examining”.

However, an unnamed former minister who welcomed Grayling’s defeat told The Telegraph that “the infamous Russia report was ‘a red herring’”.

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