Euan McColm: Cracking the whip to keep MPs in line will backfire in the end

It was an act designed to show strength that achieved nothing but reveal pitiful weakness.
Julian Lewis was accused  of acting along with opposition MPs to further his own interests. Picture: 
Justin Tallis/GettyJulian Lewis was accused  of acting along with opposition MPs to further his own interests. Picture: 
Justin Tallis/Getty
Julian Lewis was accused of acting along with opposition MPs to further his own interests. Picture: Justin Tallis/Getty

The decision by Boris Johnson to remove the Tory whip from MP Julian Lewis after he secured the chairmanship of the House of Commons’ intelligence and security committee was spun by the Prime Minister’s advisers as a righteous act against a self-interested politician.

It was nothing of the sort. In fact, when Lewis put himself forward as a candidate for the role, his crime was to act against the self-interest of the PM.

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Johnson and the adviser to whom he is in thrall, Dominic Cummings, fancied the thoroughly useless former minister Chris Grayling for the chairmanship. With a Tory majority on the nine-strong committee, Number 10 expected Grayling’s election as chair to be a formality when the committee met on Wednesday.

But Lewis had other ideas. With the support of four opposition MPs, he snatched the chairmanship.

This was not only a legitimate act but a righteous one.

Parliamentary committees exist to scrutinise issues of importance free – in theory, at least – of party-political influence. Strong, independent committees are crucial to our democracy. They speak truth to power.

The attempt by Cummings and his poodle Prime Minister to gerrymander the election of the committee chair was an affront to the principles which underpin our parliamentary system. That their sordid little plan was thwarted should reassure us that there remain some Conservative MPs who adhere to the view that democracy matters.

For his audacity in playing by the rules established to protect the independence of the committee and the integrity of our democracy, Lewis was thrown out of the parliamentary Conservative Party. The whip was removed because – according to a government source – he had acted along with opposition MPs to further his own interests.

This was, of course, bollocks. Cummings and Johnson wanted Grayling in the chair so that a report into allegations of Russian interference in UK politics could be kicked into the long grass. The PM and Cummings – quite rightly – fear the report will show Russia played a part in generating anti-EU rage during the 2016 Brexit campaign. A weaker EU and UK suits Putin down to the ground.

The former Tory cabinet minister and ex-chairman of the intelligence and security committee, Dominic Grieve, was quite right to reflect on the “utter absurdity” of the Prime Minister’s attempt to manipulate the process. The committee, he added, “can only exist, can only be respected… if it is seen to be non-partisan, and independent”.

Grieve, of course, has personal experience of the Cummings/Johnson approach to the inconvenient principles of democracy. In September last year, he was one of 21 Tory MPs to have the whip withdrawn over their attempt to block a no-deal Brexit. Grieve – respected by opponents as clever and principled – and his colleagues had decided to act in what they believed to be the best interests of their constituents and that required punishment.

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The little men, the pipsqueaks – so perfectly embodied by the laughable Eurosceptic Mark Francois – in the Conservative parliamentary group may see great strength in the Cummings/Johnson decision to remove the whip from Lewis. These enablers haven’t the wit to realise that this attack on Lewis is an attack on all of them. One day, if they dare – assuming they are able – to think for themselves, they too may find their political careers terminated abruptly.

There is a substantial difference between the punishments handed out to the 21 anti-no dealers and to Lewis (a right-wing Brexiteer). Last September, Johnson could argue that he was entitled to act because those MPs had defied the government in parliament. He may have been sailing close to the wind in terms of a moral case (which is the lifelong Johnson default) but he had a case.

The sanction against Lewis represents something far more sinister. He has been punished for breaking no rules and defying no whips (before the Grayling stitch-up failed, Number 10 sources insisted that the chairmanship of the intelligence and security committee was a matter for its members). He has been punished for defending democracy.

When Johnson removed the whip from those 21 rebels – including then Father of the House Ken Clarke – last year, he surely concentrated the minds of other Tories. With a general election not yet scheduled but expected sooner rather than later, they could look at those colleagues – some, such as Clarke, Grieve and David Gauke, serious and talented individuals – and see that it didn’t matter who you were, if you stepped out of line then the game was up. Nobody was irreplaceable.

But there’s no general election on the horizon, today. Rather, Johnson needn’t go back to the country until 2024 and he may find that his colleagues are less inclined to jump at his demand.

Under Lewis’s chairmanship, the intelligence and security committee will publish the Russia report before the House of Commons rises for summer recess. If this gives cause for concern for Johnson and Cummings then they and not Julian Lewis are responsible for that.

Johnson – a man whose political ambitions stretch only so far as winning rather than achieving – burned a huge amount of political capital saving Cummings’s career when the adviser was found to have broken lockdown rules. Every Tory MP was deluged with angry emails and letters from constituents who wondered why it was that they were expected to play by the rules but those who set them were not.

Every one of those MPs should be worried about the long memories of voters. Countless people who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 are already angry. The inevitable inquiry into the government’s chaotic handling of this crisis is unlikely to soothe them.

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When the pressure mounts on Johnson and Cummings over the coronavirus crisis will Tory MPs put their protection over the feelings of their voters?

Or will they consider that just as the Prime Minister might end their careers, so they might end his?

Boris Johnson’s attempt to play the big man leaves him looking very small, indeed.



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