Writing About Brexit: The Russia Report

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 15th September 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.

As of about 8 this evening, Boris Johnson has a 79-seat majority in the House of Commons.

This is not because a Tory MP has died or voted against the government.

This is, ultimately, because of the Russia Report.

To recap: the Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament was responsible for researching and publishing a report on Russian interference into the UK’s EU referendum in 2016. The report took years. It was completed – all security checks and clearances done, ready for the Prime Minister’s sign-off – in October 2019.

Boris Johnson just never found time to sign it off for publication before the purdah curtains fell prior to the December 2019 general election.

This, while sleazy, was more or less politics as usual. Boris Johnson could have signed it off before November – his signature was pro-forma. But hand-waving “just didn’t have time” delays to ensure something that might affect the election doesn’t come out in time to be discussed by the media before the election, is… well, classic political sleaze.

Boris Johnson then refused to publish the Russia report – about interference in the EU referendum, remember – because he wanted to get Brexit done. And he did. On 31st January 2020, the UK left the EU. No matter what was in the report, no matter how it changed the public’s mind or the minds of MPs who had supported Brexit because of the referendum, after 31st January, that made no difference – the UK is out, & isn’t going to get back into the EU any time soon.

Boris Johnson still refused to publish the Russia report – because, he said, it couldn’t be done until the Intelligence and Security Committee was complete and the chair elected by the committee’s MPs. And that was an outright lie.

The report had been completed by every process required of it except Prime Ministerial signature before the end of October 2019: the Intelligence and Security Committee didn’t need to sit again to publish the report – unless, of course, Boris Johnson intended to have changes made to it before publication. But select committees can’t work in secret from their own membership, and the ISC has Labour and SNP MPs as well as Tories. Boris Johnson couldn’t hope even to keep a request for such changes a secret. And oddly, not even the MPs of the 2017-2019 select committee, who do know what is in the report, seem to have a clear idea of just what Johnson is trying to suppress – they may guess and speculate about just which is the really embarrassing part Johnson wants under wraps as long as he could make excuses, but I think if they knew, someone would have leaked.

The composition of select committees, and the balance of parties in committee chairs, is worked out according to the proportion of seats won by the three main parties – Conservatives, Labour, and SNP (used to be LibDem). Chairs of committees are mostly elected by the MPs on the committee, with a couple of exceptions.

The Intelligence and Security Committee was going to be chaired by a Tory – Theresa Villiers, as we thought, up until the end of May, when Theresa Villiers voted against the government on imposing US food standards on the UK, and Boris Johnson sacked her. (Or rather, since the committee hadn’t sat yet and technically she wasn’t yet its chair, told her she wasn’t his preferred candidate any more.)

Who was his preferred candidate?

Chris Grayling.

Chris “Failing” Grayling is a Tory MP who has taken unearned privilege and white boy mediocrity and made other such beneficiaries of unearned privilege look good. Among Grayling’s expensive errors were to award a very large contract for a new ferry service from the EU to the UK to a company that owned no ferries: he also privatised the probation service, helped Iain Duncan Smith create workfare (a workfare found unlawful by the courts, which had to be fixed by retroactive legislation), and – just to add injury to insolence – when he was minister for Transport, his car knocked a cyclist off his bike.

Chris Grayling has one shining merit in Johnson’s eyes: he is completely loyal. He has to be. He has nothing else to recommend him. Johnson would know that if he were questioned by the chair of *this* select committee, Grayling would ask him no awkward questions.

Also, if Grayling happened to have the entire publication run of the Russia report accidentally destroyed by, I dunno, a server crash combined with a warehouse fire combined with a plague of mutant radioactive bookworms, while we might suppose that this was malice aforethought rather than utter incompetence, with Grayling, who could ever be sure?

The Intelligence and Security Committee elects its chair. There is a Tory majority in the Commons: there is therefore by constitutional principle a Tory majority on the committee; the Prime Minister had nominated his candidate for chair: Chris Grayling ought to have been elected with a routine Tory majority.
He was not. Just before six, it was announced that the MPs on the committee had elected Julian Lewis.

Julian Lewis has been the Conservative MP for for New Forest East since the 1997 general election. He has won his seat in 7 general elections: his current majority is 25,000+. He is a Brexiter – a member of the European Research Group, associated with Leave Means Leave. He’s always been a backbencher, but he has chaired the Defence Select Committee 2015-2019. He’s fairly consistently loyal to the party – his rebellions have generally been against HS2 and (oddly enough) university tuiton fees – he was educated at a grammar school in Swansea and went to Balliol, suggesting that he has not forgotten that had his family had to pay tuition fees, he wouldn’t have been able to afford Oxford. I wouldn’t say I like him – he’s anti-gay, pro-smoking, pro-hunting, etc – but his record suggests that he knows his job and intends to do it.

As of about quarter to eight this evening – literally within hours of being elected – Julian Lewis isn’t a Tory MP any more. Boris Johnson has removed the whip. Lewis is accused of negotiating with Labour MPs to be elected chair. [Note: David Allen Green pointed out on Twitter that for the wannabe chair of the Commons Intelligence committee to lose the election he was parachuted into because he didn’t realise there was a covert move against him, is irony at its best.]

While this might even be true, what must gall Boris Johnson most, is that Julian Lewis couldn’t have been elected chair without Tory support [Update – perhaps not: **, though I suspect the last two sentences of this paragraph may still be true.]. Tory MPs on the committee didn’t want Grayling. They wanted a chair who knew the job, not one appointed by the Prime Minister because he combines utter loyalty with utter incompetence.

[[**Update: this may not be correct – the voting arithmetic in the room where it happens is as follows: membership of the Intelligence & Security Committee: nine.

  • 5 Tories – Julian Lewis, Chris Grayling, John Hayes, Mark Pritchard, Theresa Villiers. (Four Tories and one Independent, as of tonight.)
  • 4 Labour: Admiral Lord West, Diana Johnson, Kevan Jones
  • 1 SNP: Stewart Hosie.

If the three Labour MPs and Hosie voted for Julian Lewis (and Lewis of course for himself) that gives him a 5-4 majority over Chris Grayling without Hayes, Pritchard, or Villiers doing anything but vote obediently for Grayling, whatever joy they felt in their hearts. ]]

Removing the whip from Julian Lewis serves two clear functions.

First, Boris Johnson makes clear he won’t tolerate any disloyalty. Go against what the party leader wants, and you can get kicked off the Tory benches, and – if Boris Johnson’s past record of removing the whip from Tory MPs is indicative – you may never get back: or you may only get back if you make an act of submission to Johnson.

Second, as far as I can see it invalidates the election of Julian Lewis as chair.

Julian Lewis is now sitting as an Independent MP, of no party. The select committee chairs are always assigned proportional to the party of government and the official Opposition and the third party. There is no place for an independent MP as the chair: the Tories are entitled to 16 MPs as chairs of select committees, but as of this hour, they have 15. I may be wrong about this: I don’t know what happens when the chair of a select committee loses the whip, and specifically I don’t know what happens when the chair of this committee loses the whip.

But if Julian Lewis retains his place as chair of this committee til the end of this term of Parliament, his questions about the Russia Report should be interesting. Too interesting for Johnson, certainly.

Update: It seems at least legally possible that Julian Lewis will continue as chair. See the penultimate two links in the comment-of-links: but in the last, Angela Eagle suggests a legal/constitutional method for throwing Julian Lewis off the committee altogether – which would have the further benefit for Johnson of further delaying the committee sitting for the first time and thus further delaying publication of the Russia Report.

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