In 2009, Julian Lewis sat next to his friend, John Bercow, as he was first elected Commons Speaker. Now he has followed the same trajectory – out of the Conservative Parliamentary Party altogether.
It is true that Bercow gave up the Tory whip, while Lewis has had taken from him. Nonetheless, the two men, who made their name together as ardent new backbenchers in 1997, happy to carry fresh fight to New Labour Ministers in their glory days, have long been “on a journey”.
There was a sense even then that they saw themselves as outsiders in a stuffy Tory club. But while Bercow transformed himself into a vocal critic of the Conservative front bench from the outside, Lewis developed into a more muted one from within, after not being appointed a Minister post-2010.
And so he has travelled from serving as an independent-minded Defence Select Committee Chairman to abandoning his Tory colleagues yesterday – teaming up with Labour and SNP MPs against them to get himself elected as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
It just might be that had the Conservative candidate for the post had a defence and security background, unlike Chris Grayling, Lewis would not have made the move that he did. And, as one of Party’s defence experts, a former hammer of CND, an ex-Shadow Minister and a lacerating Parliamentarian, he has done it real service over time.
However, Lewis can’t reasonably complain about the withdrawal of the whip. Whether or not he gave an explicit undertaking to the Chief Whip that he would support Grayling’s candidacy is beside the point. It was implicit in his appointment as a Tory member that he would do so.
So withdrawal of the whip seems fair enough to us – and to most of the Conservative MPs we have now spoken to, few of whom are signed-up members of the Boris Johnson fan club. Perhaps Lewis, who at 68 is surely now on his last Parliament, is independent, bloody-minded and detached enough not to care.
But while taking the whip off him is one thing, and an internal Tory decision from beginning to end, for Number Ten now to seek to remove him from the committee, with the report on Russian electoral meddling pending, would be quite another. The case for trying to do so is bound up with its peculiar nature and history.
For the Security and Intelligence Committee is a statutory body – established unlike select committees by an Act during John Major’s premiership. Parliament appoints nine members from the Commons and the Lords, after considering nominations from the Prime Minister, made following discussions with the Leader of the Opposition.
Both houses have duly voted for the committee’s present members (eight from the Commons and only one from the Lords, Alan West). But it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Downing Street will now seek to put a motion to Parliament removing Lewis from the committee altogether.
Were it to be in order and then passed, a Conservative MP would be appointed in his place. This person would then presumably vote for a Tory chairman. ConservativeHome understands that Grayling believes that he could not now serve in the post.
The front-runner in this circumstance might well be Theresa Villiers, who combines former Cabinet rank with security experience, gained over four years as Secretary of State in Northern Ireland. But we doubt whether Parliament would go gently into the good night of such a manoeuvre.
There was a recent rumpus over the appointment of Bernard Jenkin as Chairman of the Liaison Committee. The independent-minded Jenkin is the very opposite of a Downing Street stooge (let alone one of Dominic Cummings’ pin-ups). But 16 Tory MPs rebelled over his nomination.
A revolt against reconstituting the committee would almost certainly be bigger, with the Prime Minister’s internal opponents stealing from the shadows to oppose it. They would portray any such move as yet more command and control from a centralising and vengeful Number Ten operation.
The whip is removed more readily than it was. After all, Johnson ensured that it was taken off 21 Conservative MPs last year. MPs are less ready to obey it than they once were. Even before Theresa May became Prime Minister and Brexit debates began, the 2010-2015 Parliament was found to be the most rebellious since the war.
Newly-elected MPs for former Red Wall and other seats seem to be more focused on holding them next time round, relatively speaking, and less fixed on clambering up the greasy pole of Ministerial office. If you doubt it, ponder what happened after the media projected Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free summer school vouchers.
Or ask the Treasury what it makes of small state, low tax Tory MPs becoming big state, government subsidy backers in the wake of Covid-19. Lewis is the first to lose the whip in this Parliament, but may not be the last.