Boris Johnson's incompetence to blame for intelligence committee humiliation, says Tory grandee

Rob Merrick
·3-min read
Getty
Getty

A former Conservative head of the intelligence committee has blamed Boris Johnson’s “incompetence” for the farce that saw Chris Grayling – his hand-picked choice – defeated in his bid to lead it.

“I think the prime minister is the author of his own misfortune,” Malcolm Rifkind said – as Downing Street licked its wounds over the humiliation on Wednesday evening.

Mr Grayling was beaten by fellow Conservative Julian Lewis, who was promptly kicked out of the parliamentary party as a punishment for voting with Labour members.

The episode paves the way for the publication, next week, of the report into Russian interference in British politics, which Mr Johnson has suppressed for nine months.

Sir Malcom, who chaired the powerful intelligence and security committee for five years until 2015, said it was “ridiculous” for the government to protest at the choice of Dr Lewis.

It was set down in an Act of Parliament that the chair was chosen by the nine nominated members, with No 10 having “no role”.

“The idea of using the whips to try and force Conservative members to vote for a particular candidate goes totally against the way in which the committee has – under statute – operated since it began,” Sir Malcolm said.

“The prime minister or his advisers, whoever was dealing with it, has handled this in an extremely incompetent way.”

The committee is seen as increasingly important as the intelligence agencies gain stronger powers to intercept and hold data, and amid growing concerns about the activities of Russia and China.

Its members are given privileged access to classified information and receive confidential briefings security chiefs, but decide themselves – in secret – which controversies to pursue.

No 10 thought it had secured the chairmanship for Mr Grayling – despite anger over his gaffe-prone record and lack of intelligence background – by arranging a Tory majority on the committee.

But it was blindsided by Dr Lewis, who prizes his record as an independent thinker, quietly winning the backing of the three Labour and one SNP members.

Sir Malcom said he did not know if Dominic Cummings was behind the original plot, but added: “If it had succeeded, that destroys the whole purpose of the intelligence and security committee.”

“Whoever is advising him deserves to be stripped of their responsibility at this very moment.”

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Asked if people would now see the Russia report released quickly, he replied: “Of course we will – and we should have seen it 7 months ago. It’s quite absurd.”

Pressed on the row, Alok Sharma, the business secretary, said: “The whole point of that committee is to provide oversight, to provide scrutiny, and that will continue.

“With reference to individuals in the parliamentary party, I can only repeat that that really is a matter for the whips, not for me.”

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