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Tue, 4 August 2020

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By Hft

Downing Street accused of 'wanting to police every aspect of government' as security watchdog row rumbles on

Downing Street accused of 'wanting to police every aspect of government' as security watchdog row rumbles on

ISC chair Julian Lewis

3 min read

Downing Street has been accused of "wanting to police every aspect of government activity" as the row over chairmanship of a prestigious security committee rumbles on.

Conservative backbencher Dr Julian Lewis had the party whip removed after he joined forces with opposition MPs in a coup to head up the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).

Number 10 was said to be furious after he beat former transport secretary Chris Grayling - Boris Johnson's preferred candidate - to the role. 

The ISC's former chair Dominic Grieve, who also lost the Tory whip because of his dissent over Brexit, described the actions of Downing Street in trying to install a specific candidate as "sinister".

"The only rational explanation may be that the government wishes to police every aspect of government activity and parliamentary activity and party politicise it, that nothing else is tolerable and that they wish to exert constant and continuous control over a range of activities that should be carried out by independent players," he told the Observer.

"And if they're doing that to this parliamentary committee, what will they choose to try and do it to next?

"I think there is a legitimate reason for being very concerned over what they are doing, even though this seems to me to be the theatre of the absurd."

Meanwhile opponents of Dr Lewis accused him of hypocrisy, telling the Mail on Sunday the New Forest East MP approached ministers before Christmas to ask about the possiblity of taking on the ISC chairmanship.

"Julian may be claiming to have scrupulously observed the rule book in this affair by saying that there could never be a Tory nomination for chairmanship of the committee," a source told the paper.

"Sadly, he is exposing himself to charges of hypocrisy as he himself approached Ministers months ago to ask that he be that very nomination.

"He also spoke to the Tory whips who, as everyone knows, are in charge of organising votes. If this wasn’t about organising the vote to become chairman, why was he speaking to the whips?"

The committee, which oversees the work of MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the other intelligence and security services, was set up six months after the election.

Dr Lewis claimed he received a text last week asking him to confirm that he would vote for Mr Grayling as ISC chair.

“I did not reply as I considered it an improper request. At no earlier stage did I give any undertaking to vote for any particular candidate," he said.

“In recent days, the official Number 10 spokesman explicitly denied that the Government was seeking to 'parachute' a preferred candidate in to the chair, stating that it was a matter for the senior parliamentarians on the committee to decide.

"It is therefore strange to have the whip removed for failing to vote for the Government's preferred candidate."

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