These are unprecedented times in so many respects but to observe a Tory MP having been duly elected in Parliament as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee losing the party whip within hours of being elected is a reminder, if it was needed, of the very strange political times that we are also living in today!
This has been a battle won by tactics over strategy and all credit to the amiable member for New Forest East since 1997 for having the guts to challenge the establishment process and seemingly won the first round in this rather strange and regrettable too public battle.
Having served as an advisor to the House of Common Defence Select Committee when Dr. Lewis was chair, I know him reasonably well and recognise his excellent qualities not only as chair of that committee for five years but particularly for his extensive knowledge of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, his writings on this and his long standing support to ensure that Britain both maintains and modernises this vital capability.
I had been initially surprised that Dr Lewis chose not to put himself forward for re-election as chair of the Defence Select Committee last year following the General Election although I also recognise that he was not popular with some committee members and may well, had he decided to put himself forward again, have had a struggle on his hands!
In respect of events in Westminster yesterday, the first point I would make on this ungainly affair is a belief that Dr. Julian Lewis would almost certainly make a much better job as chair of the important Intelligence and Security Committee that that the government’s own choice of Chris Grayling. My second point, one that some of you might find at odds with my normal stance on such matters, would be that assuming reports that Dr Lewis has been actively seeking support for his appointment as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee from Labour and Lib-Dem MP’s are correct, removal of the party whip is a perfectly correct course of action for No 10 to take.
Nevertheless, I also take the view that however the internal politics may or may not have been manipulated by Dr. Lewis, any attempt by No 10 to remove him from the chair by a parliamentary vote and that would be reasoned on the basis that the post of chair must be in the hands of a Tory MP rather than one who has now lost the Tory whip, would be misjudgement that government might live to regret.
As a statutory body the Security and Intelligence Committee. unlike most but not all parliamentary select committees, was established by Act of Parliament under John Major’s premiership. In the case of this committee parliament appoints nine members – eight of those being members of the House of Commons plus one member of the House of Lords. Such is the importance placed on the Security and intelligence Committee that nominations are, I believe, initially scrutinised by the Prime Minister in discussion with the Leader of the Opposition.
Although elected by parliament, House of Commons Select Committee chairs are not always the first choice of those who sit on the actual committee or indeed, have any particular specialist knowledge of the subject matter for which the committee is responsible to ensure the government is accountable. Indeed, following the decision by James (now Lord) Arbuthnot to stand down as chair of the Defence Select Committee in 2014 following a nine-year term of excellence during which so much good work was achieved, the then Coalition Government pushed Rory Stewart into the chair of that committee. A former member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on which committee with his extensive Middle East knowledge he was extremely well qualified to sit, suffice to say that Rory Stewart knew precious little about matters defence meaning that he required a level of hand-holding that annoyed some of the other committee members.
Mr. Stewarts’s tenure as chair of the Defence Select Committee lasted just 13 months until Dr. Lewis was appointed to replace him following the 2015 General Election – note that all House of Commons Select Committees are stood down when parliament is dissolved and new committees are elected following each General Election.
Today the position of chair of the Defence Select Committee is held by Tobias Ellwood who brings with him additional benefit of having actually served in the military. That said, may I respectfully request that Mr. Ellwood should be better be aware of facts before tweeting remarks taken out of a daily newspaper in respect of reported future carrier deployment in the Far East that have no basis of fact.
While I feel sorry that Julian Lewis has lost the Tory Whip at such an early stage in the life of this parliament, I hope that common sense will prevail and that given a little time he will return to the fold of official Tory MP’s. I have no idea whether or not Dr. Lewis intends to make this parliament his last but I suspect that following what will have been a parliamentary career of around 26 years by the time of the next planned General Election it may well be time then to hang up his boots. One alternative the Government could also use to take the heat out of this unfortunate affair might be to despatch Dr. Lewis to the House of Lords perhaps?
CHW (London – 16th July 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785