Julian Lewis and the Russian Report

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 17th July 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.

I am on the Conservative Party’s mailing list to supporters. I’ve been on this list for years, as I find it occasionally useful to know what the Tories are telling their supporters.

Today, the news is that the party is asking its supporters to donate to support the re-election of a Conservative MP who was elected in December 2019 to a previously always-Labour constitutency, because “As a Party we are committed to ensuring every one of our new MPs can successfully defend their seats. That work must start now.”

Until the Fixed-Term Parliament Act is repealed, the next general election for Westminster takes place in May 2024. If Boris Johnson follows through on repealing the FTA, the next general election can take place any time up til December 2024.

The Conservatives have a 79-MP majority, which means that by May – or December – 2024, they are likely still to have a majority in the Commons – despite natural attritition over a four-year period (death, disgrace, etc) and despite Boris Johnson’s attitude that if MPs can’t be obedient they should lose the Whip pour encourager les autres. Which means, in turn, that it is unlikely any Tory Prime Minister will agree to a general election sooner than they have to, short of a Falklands moment. (I wouldn’t put it past Johnson to start a war for the sake of winning an election, but given the planned cuts to the Defence budget, they might lose the war.)

So why this email?

As it turned out, Boris Johnson kicking Julian Lewis out of the Parliamentary Conservative Party could not unseat Lewis as chair of the committee. The Prime Minister had selected the members of the committee himself in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, as legislatively required, and the membership had been agreed to by Parliament on Monday 13th July. (I am not sure that Boris Johnson himself knew that removing the Whip from Julian Lewis and making him sit as an independent, wouldn’t remove him from the committee: but anyway – Lewis is on the committee and can’t be kicked off) – and he has been duly elected chair, Wednesday.

The committee then doucely announced, Thursday, that the long-awaited report of Russian interference in the EU referendum in 2016, would be published Monday – Boris Johnson’s nine-month suppression of the report will finally come to an end.

The government’s Thursday response (and the moment when I knew they wouldn’t attempt to remove Julian Lewis, at least not this week) was to have Dominic Raab announce that the government had detected Russian interference in the 2019 general election: “Russian actors” had hacked the report on the US-UK trade deal and published it on Reddit, and Labour had then promoted the leaked report.

You see the strategy? Attempt to confuse the issue: sure there’s been Russian interference in UK politics, but, the party they wanted to win the election was LABOUR, really, because CORBYN.

(Followed doorstepping of Jeremy Corbyn by obedient journalists wanting a quote from him on the Russian interference on behalf of his party. Corbyn declined to provide them with a quote, for which he was referred to as Mister Zen.)

Boris Johnson’s party has taken millions from Russian donors: Boris Johnson has attended parties with KGB agents: Boris Johnson would appear to have something hugely damaging to hide in the Russia report: but nope, doorstep Corbyn. That’s how we do news here.

Boris Johnson can be removed from leadership of the Tory party without affecting the Conservative stranglehold on government til 2024: his removal – unless he were replaced by Michael Gove – means that Dominic Cummings is removed from 10 Downing Street; and the Vote Leave coterie at the top of the UK government can also, now, be removed without Brexiter MPs having any fear of a Remainer candidate delaying the end of the transition period. On 31st December 2020, the UK crashes out of the EU in no-deal Brexit, and one thing keeping Boris Johnson in power may be that no Tory MP wants to be sitting in the hot seat when the crash happens.

Still: Johnson can, lawfully and properly, face a no-confidence vote whenever 55 Tory MPs have sent letters of no-confidence to the chair of the 1922 committee (those letters are secret, so Johnson can’t punish an MP for writing such a letter). And if he loses the no-confidence vote, while he could stand again as a candidate in the leadership race, it seems unlikely that he would manage to be even number two on the shortlist – and possible that he will not look quite so appealling to the post-COVID survivors of the Conservative Party’s membership.

(MPs last year were convinced by Johnson that he could win the next general election and deliver Brexit, plus whatever other lies he tailored specifically to each MP. This doesn’t look like a winning strategy for MPs thinking about 2024.)

Julian Lewis was removed from the Parliamentary Conservative Party, officially, for conspiring with Labour MPs on the security committee. But neither Lewis nor the Labour MPs have admitted/acknowledged any conspiracy, and Lewis’s unusual refusal to use email for his communications means that it is quite improbable that the Conservative Party Whips have any actual evidence.

Without an admission by Julian Lewis, or an acknowledgement by the Labour MPs, the Conservative Party Whips’ justification for taking action against Lewis is based on the presumption that he must have discussed his intention to put his name on the ballot for the election to chair the committee, with the Labour MPs whose votes he needed to win.

But given his opposing candidate was Chris Grayling, it is possible – even probable – that Lewis did no such thing: that he made up his mind privately to take a chance, told the clerk and only the clerk that his name was to go on the ballot, and trusted that the Labour and SNP MPs would prefer him to Grayling. It is certainly unlikely that the Tory Whips will ever be able to prove definitely that there was collusion.

Which means, if you are a Tory backbencher, that you know that you can act lawfully and within the rules – Lewis was perfectly entitled to put his name on the ballot – and still be penalised by the Conservative Whips, not for any rule breaking or rebellious voting, but simply because you have done something contrary to Boris Johnson’s – or Dominic Cummings’ – expressed wishes.

First the stick. Then the carrot. Be good, says this email to Tory backbenchers, and you know we’ll support you to get re-elected. Step out of line, and you won’t even get to campaign as a Tory PPC next time.

If the plan was to have the media talking about the Russian interference in the 2019 general election trying to get Labour elected, it doesn’t seem to have worked – the front page of tomorrow’s papers ranges between photos of a 100-year-old man getting knighted by the Queen for his birthday, to headlines commenting on Johnson’s unfortunate comment that it’ll all be normal again by Christmas.

(Johnson will certainly want there to be an early public enquiry into the COVID-19 disaster, while he is still in power and able to set the parameters of the enquiry.)

I doubt if there is going to be an instant revelation, though the former MPs who were on the committee – such as Dominic Grieve – will finally be free to speak. I think the Russia report is likely to be a slow-burning release of dirty background, not a sudden spark and wildfire. But no doubt there will be other efforts to sideline, distract, or distort whatever it was in the Russia report that Boris Johnson didn’t want the public to see.

Boris Johnson will not be Prime Minister in May 2024. I think he is unlikely to be PM by December 2021. Once he has sold us out in no-deal Brexit, his backers have no further use for him in power, and once he has taken the blame for the no-deal Brexit crash and the COVID-19 disaster, I don’t think Tory MPs will have much more use for him.

I was asked on Twitter, what happens if Boris Johnson just refuses to go, despite having lost the leadership election & there being a new Tory leader who is the new Prime Minister – once Boris Johnson offers his resignation to the Queen & recommends his successor to her as having “the confidence of the Commons”. What if Johnson just … wouldn’t do that?

Assuming that Johnson was fool enough to try, with a new leader of the Tory party now the lawful Prime Minister according to our uncodified constitutiton, what would happen if Johnson just plunked himself down on the front bench and declared that he WAS the PM and wasn’t going without a general election, is that the Speaker would invite him to leave, and if he didn’t go, the Serjeant at Arms would forcibly remove him. (This hasn’t happened to a MP since 1931, but it could.) I mention this just in case the awful thought had occurred to someone else.

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