POLITICS
14/07/2020 23:23 BST | Updated 15/07/2020 11:40 BST

Is Boris Johnson Playing Fast And Loose Again With The British Constitution?

PM's patronage shapes the Intelligence and Security Committee.

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Intel inside?

Today’s UK government U-turn on Huawei was well trailed, but is nonetheless hugely significant. Just six months after Boris Johnson defied American pressure - and trusted his intelligence officials - to grant a limited role for the Chinese company in our 5G network, Donald Trump has got what he wanted. No wonder US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised “our British friends” in a statement this evening.

But the key factor was not really American friendliness, it was the raw power and reach of US sanctions. When the Trump administration tweaked their ‘Foreign-Produced Direct Product Rule’ on May 15, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (an offshoot of GCHQ) instantly spotted the implications and ordered the review that drove today’s decision.‌

The US change was sweeping, banning Huawei from using any American technology, design or manufacture processes, and at a stroke throwing into doubt the company’s future microchips and kit. Our spooks, who have spent years closely monitoring Huawei’s US-reliant tech, decided today they could no longer view its activities as a manageable risk.

Although the NCSC report was driven by a hard-headed assessment of the facts, it still got the PM out of a political hole with both Trump and his own backbenches. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the shift to stripping Huawei out of UK networks entirely by 2027 would be written into law in the new Telecoms Security Bill.‌

The very fact that the bill was coming (it goes way beyond Huawei to protect the UK against state cyber actors like Russia, China and Iran) gave Tory rebels a chance to flex their muscles. With Keir Starmer’s Labour newly hawkish on China, and the SNP already so, the government majority of 80 was looking ropey. Even today, Dowden refused to say when the bill - due before summer recess - would be published, beyond “autumn”. He would only say that “autumn falls in the months of September, October and November”.‌

The independence and rigour of NCSC’s advice has never been questioned. The latest blog by its technical director Ian Levy sets out the Huawei ban’s long-term benefit to UK security but also the downsides in terms of “significant risks” in relying on a small number of other companies, even friendly Western ones like Nokia. The cost to telecoms firms will be hundreds of millions of pounds too.‌

So, it is perhaps bitterly ironic that the independence of those who watch over our intelligence agencies - the Intelligence and Security Committee - is being called into question on the same day as the Huawei decision. With the House of Lords confirming its final member - Labour peer Lord West of Spithead - this afternoon, the ISC is now formally constituted and ready to go.

But West is one of just four Opposition members on the committee (along with MPs Kevan Jones, Diana Johnson and Stewart Hosie), compared to five Tory MPs (Chris Grayling, John Hayes, Julian Lewis, Theresa Villiers and Mark Pritchard). For the first time in years, there will be a government majority on the committee. Part of the reason for that is the little-noticed move by the PM to remove a crossbencher from its membership.

Former cabinet secretary Lord Butler served on the ISC from 2010 to 2015, and was replaced by the equally independent minded Lord Janvrin - the Queen’s former private secretary - from 2015. Until today, that is. Janvrin’s departure from the committee is much lamented by some in parliament.

Janvrin today gave me his reaction to his removal. “I would only make the obvious point that the inclusion of a crossbencher in recent years has reinforced the non-partisan, cross-party nature of the Committee and this has in my view added to its authority in holding the intelligence community to account – a crucial constitutional role in a democracy,” he said. Diplomatically put, but the message was pretty clear.

The fact is that while Boris Johnson can be constrained by backbench rebellions, he also knows the power of patronage. Several MPs (Tories among them) felt that the whipping through of Bernard Jenkin as chairman of the Liaison Committee was proof that the PM doesn’t care for meaningful checks and balances in our constitution. The impending vote for Grayling as chair of the ISC, thanks to its new Tory majority, is another example.

Even when he won a landslide in 1997, Tony Blair kept on Tory Tom King as chair of the ISC to maintain its non-partisan nature. Between 2015 and 2020, the nine-strong committee had four Tories and four Opposition members, with a crossbencher in addition. Yet in 2020, it seems that the PM has decided (rather than the Committee itself) that Grayling should be its chair, despite his only passing acquaintance with security experience. “Intelligence is not the word you think of when you think of Grayling,” says one MP with an arched eyebrow.‌

Some MPs remain baffled why Grayling is the PM’s pick, other than the fact that he is a committed Brexiteer (Grayling don’t forget was the first cabinet minister under Cameron to publicly back Brexit). They are particularly baffled as to why Johnson appeared to be ready to support Sir Mike Penning - a former serviceman and armed forces minister - for the committee, only to see that prospect disappear.

Penning’s independence of mind is said by some to be the real stumbling block to his appointment. Which if true would only serve to underline how fleeting Johnson’s personal relations can be in his party. Penning helped the Johnson leadership campaign hugely last year by giving up his perfectly-sited Portcullis House office to allow the PM-to-be to schmooze backbenchers in person.‌

Grayling will want to prove his own credentials as soon as the committee meets, possibly as early as Wednesday. The publication of the long-awaited ‘Russia report’ could take place before summer recess, as could the delayed ‘annual report’ on the intelligence services. The Russia report may not contain the mythical political dynamite some have assumed, though any sniff of Kremlin links to Tory donors would be sure to be pounced on. The Huawei decision today underlines the growing importance of intelligence, and independent oversight of that intelligence, more than ever.‌

But some Conservative MPs are more uneasy about the way Johnson disregards norms of the UK’s unwritten constitution. The prorogation of parliament and ruthless expulsion of figures like David Gauke last year may not have been momentary lapses, but proof of the naked opportunism, raw power and patronage that many suspect drives the PM’s politics. If so, maybe he’s more like Trump than he likes to admit.

Quote Of The Day

“Britain’s decision to protect its national security by banning Huawei from its 5G network is also a win for fair trade and human rights.”

Woody Johnson, US ambassador to the UK, lets slip this is as much about trade wars as security fears

Tuesday Cheat Sheet

Health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that face coverings are to be mandatory in shops and supermarkets in England from 24 July.

The Leicester lockdown will be reviewed this week, Hancock said. Another hotspot for the virus, Blackburn with Darwen, has introduced stricter measures to try to avoid following Leicester.

Postcode-level coronavirus testing data is being withheld from publication due to councils’ fears it could lead to certain communities being stigmatised and a breakdown of community cohesion, HuffPost revealed.

‌There was a double helping of bad news on the economy. The Office for National Statistics said the UK grew by just 1.8 per cent in May, after the collapse of more than 25 per cent over March and April.

The Office for Budget Responsibility had a central forecast that growth would not return to trend until the middle of 2022, with more than a million extra unemployed.

What I’m Reading

Could Trump Now Target TikTok? - Wired 

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article wrongly asserted there were 5 Labour and 5 Opposition members of the ISC from 2005 to 2010. There were 5 Labour and 4 Opposition members.