Prime Minister Boris Johnson is fighting to restore his authority after his preferred candidate lost his bid to take over the watchdog overseeing the U.K.’s spy agencies.
Former Cabinet minister Chris Grayling was Johnson’s choice to head up Parliament’s powerful Intelligence and Security Committee but was defeated by Julian Lewis, who launched a last-minute campaign for chairmanship of the panel.
Despite being a Tory like Johnson and Grayling, Lewis won with the support of opposition politicians, a move seen as an act of disloyalty by the prime minister, who then fired him from the ruling Conservative party.
The risk now for Johnson is that he has lost control over an important and influential body at a sensitive time. The ISC announced on Thursday that will push ahead and publish its long-awaited investigation into Russian interference in British politics next week. Lewis is no longer bound by so-called whipping arrangements that require him to follow Tory party orders and may be more outspoken in his criticism of the government as a result.
More broadly, Johnson’s failure to get his own man installed as ISC chair is a blow to his own political authority.
“It doesn’t look good, it doesn’t make the party look good and it doesn’t make the government look good,” Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the Commons defense committee, told Times Radio on Thursday. “Right now the story is not about what the committee is scrutinizing but on the makeup of the committee, and we need to move on from that.”
Lewis said it was “strange” to be thrown out of the party, because by law the chair of the committee is decided by its members, not the prime minister. Johnson’s office had repeatedly denied it was trying to parachute in Grayling as chairman, he said.
“It was only yesterday afternoon that I received a text asking me to confirm that I would be voting for the prime minister’s preferred candidate for the ISC chair. I did not reply as I considered it an improper request,” Lewis said in a statement released through the Press Association on Thursday. “At no earlier stage did I give any undertaking to vote for any particular candidate.”
Lewis has been a Tory MP for 23 years and his expulsion from the parliamentary party is the latest example of Johnson’s intolerance of perceived disloyalty in the ranks. A sweeping re-shuffle of his cabinet earlier this year saw Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid resign, and removed rivals who’d expressed dissenting views on key issues such as Brexit.
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Though Johnson’s decision means he has one fewer MP supporting him in Parliament, the Conservatives still have a commanding majority in the House of Commons. But the episode is embarrassing for the prime minister, and a fresh political setback.
Lewis is a former chair of the U.K.’s Defence Select Committee and an expert on the military. He is also a vocal supporter of Brexit.
“They hate people who are independently minded and follow the evidence,” Labour lawmaker Peter Kyle said on ITV’s “Peston,” reacting to the decision by Johnson to remove Lewis. “That’s why they’re so upset.”
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.