Boris Johnson was humiliated tonight after Chris Grayling, his pick to lead parliament’s powerful intelligence and security committee, was unexpectedly rejected in an ambush by MPs.
The former cabinet minister was defeated by fellow Conservative Julian Lewis – prompting an embarrassed Downing Street to kick the victor, who was accused of duplicitous behaviour, out of the parliamentary party.
One source said Grayling “didn’t see it coming” as the nine members of the MPs’ committee voted five to four in favour of Lewis, with the four opposition members all voting against Grayling.
A furious Downing Street responded by stripping the whip from Lewis – a Tory MP since 1997 – “because he worked with Labour and other opposition MPs to his own advantage”.
The committee, responsible for oversight of Britain’s spy agencies, has agreed to meet again before recess and is expected to discuss publishing the long-delayed report into Russian interference in British politics.
Grayling had been the prime minister’s choice for months, but his appointment was controversial even amongst Conservatives because of his error-prone record as a cabinet minister.
He presided over the collapse of Northern and Thameslink rail services and the granting of a no-deal Brexit ferry contract to a company with no ships.
As justice secretary, he part-privatised the probation service and banned prisoners from receiving books from relatives, a measure that was overturned in the courts. He was also a prominent supporter of leave in the 2016 referendum campaign.
Downing Street thought that it had dealt with the threat to him securing the intelligence committee role when it nominated what it thought were five loyal Conservative MPs, who were expected to vote Grayling through when the body met this week.
But No 10 had not banked on Lewis, a former defence committee chair, putting himself forward, confident that the three Labour and one SNP members of the committee would support him instead.
The intelligence and security committee meets in secret. Its members decide who is to become chair when it is reconstituted after a general election – a process that has been delayed for months.
The committee now has a short window before the start of the summer recess in which it could publish the Russia report, delayed since before the election when Johnson refused to clear it for publication.
The document examines Kremlin interference in British public life and earlier this week the senior Labour MP on the committee, Kevan Jones, said there was “there was no reason why” it could not be released by next Wednesday.
Downing Street says that the document is relatively anodyne, although it comes with a secret annex. Others who have read it say there is considerable detail of interest worth examining.
Opposition members of the committee are Jones and fellow Labour MP Diana Johnson, the SNP MP Stewart Hosie and the Labour peer Lord West. Aside from Grayling, the other Conservatives are backbench MPs Theresa Villiers, Sir John Hayes and Mark Pritchard.
Downing Street had been pushing Grayling to lead the committee since March, but the process was held up partly by coronavirus and difficulties in finding five people who it thought would back him in the sensitive post. It said that it always made it clear “it was for the committee to elect its own chair”.
Lewis has a track record of surprises. In the 1970s as a young man, he infiltrated the Newham North East Labour party, taking control of it briefly in a failed attempt to defend sitting MP Reg Prentice, who eventually defected to the Conservatives.
Following Lewis’ success, Lord Ricketts, the former national security adviser, said the body was now in the “hands of someone with much wider experience of defence and security”. Lord Ricketts had warned that Grayling does not “match up” to the authority and reputation of former chairs.
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael said Johnson had appointed “yes men” to the intelligence and security committee but “true to form … failing Grayling has been undone in his bid to be chair”. He added: “I hope we now have a committee with real teeth that can hold this government to account. That starts by publishing the report into Russian interference of our democracy before the summer recess so MPs can scrutinise it fully.”