Former cabinet minister Chris Grayling – renowned for a string of mishaps at the transport and justice departments – looks set to become chair of Westminster’s influential Intelligence and Security Committee, after Boris Johnson included his name on the list of nominees.
The first challenge for the new chair will be to decide when – and if – to release the long-awaited report into alleged Russian interference in UK politics, which the prime minister has been accused of delaying to ensure it was not published ahead of last year’s general election.
Mr Johnson’s failure to ensure that the 50-page dossier presented to him last October was cleared for release before the December poll has sparked speculation that it contains embarrassing details of Moscow’s attempts to gain influence within the Conservative Party and to further the Brexit cause.
Also included on the list of nominees to the ISC are Tory former ministers Theresa Villiers and Sir John Hayes and senior Conservative backbenchers Julian Lewis and Mark Pritchard, as well as Labour’s Kevan Jones and Diana Johnson and the SNP’s Stewart Hosie. They will be joined by a list of peers nominated to the joint committee, which scrutinises the UK’s intelligence and security agencies MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.
The Commons will vote to approve the list on Monday, followed by the House of Lords on Tuesday. Once approved, the committee members will choose a chair, but it is understood that the Conservative majority will be whipped to back Mr Grayling – renowned for a succession of mishaps as cabinet minister for transport and justice – making his selection all but certain.
Unusually, the ISC has not sat in the seven months since the election, as No 10 repeatedly failed to approve a list of MPs for membership. Unlike other Westminster committees, the ISC reports not to parliament but to the prime minister, who must clear its reports for publication.
Mr Johnson has already given the Russia report the green light for release, but it could not be made public so long as the committee was not sitting. The PM’s spokesperson today said Mr Johnson would encourage the new committee to publish “as soon as possible”.
The report was completed in March last year and submitted to the prime minister last October after completing the process for clearance on security grounds.
Former ISC chair Dominic Grieve appealed last year for Mr Johnson to clear it for publication ahead of the election, saying it contained knowledge which would be “germane” to voters deciding who to back.
But the PM’s approval came after the dissolution of parliament, at which point the committee formally ceased to exist and could therefore not press ahead with publication.
It is understood that the report examines allegations that Russian money has flowed into British politics in general and to the Conservative party in particular. It also includes claims that Russia launched a major influence operation in 2016 in support of Brexit.
Asked whether the long-awaited document could now see the light of day before parliament breaks up for the summer recess later this month, Mr Johnson’s spokesperson said: “The publication will be a matter for the new committee but we will encourage them to publish it as soon as possible.”
The SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said that previous ISC chairs had been appointed by consensus and accused Mr Johnson and chief aide Dominic Cummings of trying to "parachute in" Mr Grayling by nominating Tories willing to do their bidding.
“It has shamefully taken the UK government seven months to reconvene the ISC - holding back the publication of the report into Russian interference in UK democracy and tackling other security issues," said Mr Blackford.
“The likely nomination of Chris Grayling as chair - who has a distinct record in government as a jack of all trades and master of none - will deliver a blow to the effectiveness of the committee’s work.
"The ISC must be able to hold the confidence of parliament and get on with the job of properly overseeing key security matters and addressing the diverse threats facing the UK. This latest attack on government institutions from Cummings and Co, however, marks yet another dangerous step."
Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, who earlier this month tabled a parliamentary motion demanding the urgent reinstatement of the ISC so that it could publish the report, said: “I am glad the committee is due to be restored. However, it should never have needed this fight. The prime minister has a lot to do to claw back public confidence.
“At the top of the list for the intelligence committee must be forcing the government to publish the report into Russian interference of our democracy, and before the summer recess so MPs can scrutinise it.
“A failure to do so would damage the UK’s standing in the world and continue to raise further questions about the Conservative Party’s deep connections to Russian oligarchs.”