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Boris Johnson’s attempt to “nobble” parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has backfired spectacularly after a rebel Tory was installed as its chairman instead of former minister Chris Grayling.
The PM is understood to have wanted Brexiteer Grayling - dubbed “failing Grayling” for his record in government - in the plum post, even though he lacked experience in security issues.
But in a major snub, backbencher Julian Lewis was instead picked by the nine-strong committee when it met for the first time on Wednesday after a seven month delay in its establishment.
The committee, which oversees all of the UK’s intelligence agencies including MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, will now have to decide when to publish the long-delayed “Russia report” into Moscow’s influence in British elections and politics.
The committee is now due to meet on Thursday morning to discuss the Russia report, with several of its members pushing for publication in the next fortnight before MPs break up for their summer recess.
Tory whips had worked hard last week to engineer the approval of 5 Tory MPs on the committee, removing an independent crossbench peer in a bid to gain a Conservative majority over the four Opposition MPs and peers among its members.
Lewis, a former chairman of the Commons defence select committee and a former member of the ISC, will now lead its deliberations after he voted for himself in what was seen as a “coup” by Labour and SNP members.
One Labour source told HuffPost: “The PM tried to nobble the ISC and he’s found out the hard way that its members put its independence first.”
Another source added: “Julian has proved he is very independent minded and very consensual.”
Grayling had made clear his intention to stand two days before the vote, but it is understood that the first he knew of Lewis’s candidacy was when he was handed a ballot paper revealing he had a Tory rival for the top job.
In the resulting vote, Lewis gained five votes to Grayling’s four.
Former ISC chairman Dominic Grieve had warned against No.10 trying to pick its chairman, saying had to be “respected on a cross-party basis” and “trusted as being competent and effective”.
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael said: “True to form, failing Grayling has been undone in his bid to be Chair.
“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.”
Lord Janvrin, the Queen’s former private secretary and a Lords crossbench member of the committee, was axed from its membership this week.
Janvrin told HuffPost UK on Tuesday: “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,”
The prime minister’s official spokesman said last week that the Russia report would be among the first considerations of the newly constituted committee. “The publication will be a matter for the new committee but we will encourage them to publish it as soon as possible,” he said.