In a nifty bit of parliamentary footwork, Boris Johnson’s government this week failed to establish the ever-loyal Chis Grayling as the new chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament. The far more independently minded backbencher Julian Lewis was voted in instead, with the support of opposition MPs, and was promptly kicked out of the parliamentary Conservative Party as a result.
In reporting this story, the media has focused on the committee’s report on Russian interference in UK electoral processes, still unpublished months after it was completed. It is now highly likely that Lewis, a long-time critic of the former Soviet Union and more recently of Russia, will ensure rapid publication.
It may turn out, however, that the real significance of this mini-coup against Johnson will be what the committee does to investigate a much more important issue. This is the possible role of the intelligence agencies in the government’s failure to get a grip on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why should this be a matter for the Intelligence and Security Committee? Well, consider that COVID-19 has already killed well over 50,000 people in the UK, far more than all the civilians killed in the country throughout the Second World War, and further waves of infection this winter could well double that.
There are now strident calls for an inquiry into the government’s actions and although Johnson has accepted this in principle, he will resist it in the short term, hoping to kick it into the long grass for at least a year. The Intelligence and Security Committee is one of the few official cross-party groups that has the political clout to look into it sooner, but that would surely not have happened if Grayling had been in charge. Now, though, with Lewis there instead, it will depend to a large extent on him, and it is here that it gets interesting.
Join the COVID-19 DemocracyWatch email list
Sign up for our global round-up of attacks on democracy during the coronavirus pandemic.
Julian Lewis is on the Right of the Conservative Party, very pro-Brexit and pro-defence and prior to entering Parliament 23 years ago had a long career in conservative think-tanks and ginger groups. Perhaps most notably he was well-known in Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament circles during the peak of the anti-nuclear activities of the early 1980s as the leading light in the Coalition for Peace Through Security. This was a well-resourced pro-nuclear campaigning group that had CND in its sights for many years, extending its targets on occasions to peace studies and peace movements more generally.
On this basis you might assume Johnson’s government has nothing to worry about. There are two elements in Lewis’s make-up that should cause them concern, though. One is that he has an independent streak and has often deviated from the party line. The other is that those who have debated with him over the years on nuclear and other issues have found he will genuinely engage in argument – he has a DPhil in strategic studies from St Anthony’s College, Oxford – and so has engendered more respect than you might expect.
What it means is that Lewis may be at pains to ensure the independence of the committee he now chairs. That is certainly an urgent task for, as openDemocracy argued more than three months ago, there is a strong case for investigating the performance of the British security and intelligence apparatus in failing to warn of the COVID-19 risk.
Matt Kennard’s report for Declassified UK in March had shown that there was little evidence before COVID-19 of intelligence chiefs recognising the danger of a pandemic, even though it was considered a ‘tier-one’ threat by biosecurity specialists. Since then it has become even more clear that there were plenty of signs, right back at the start of the year, of a growing crisis even before the first meeting of the government’s COBRA emergency on 27 January, which Johnson famously missed.
By comparison, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and others were all very quick off the mark, with Vietnam’s performance perhaps the most striking of all. As the leading science journal Nature reported this week:
Vietnam has a population of 97 million people, limited health-care capacity and a border shared with China. Yet it has had fewer than 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and no deaths.
Furthermore, there is evidence that US intelligence agencies were aware of a potential issue in Wuhan last November, passing this on to NATO allies, and many other indications of a potential crisis unfolding by early January.
An unnamed MI6 source told two government-supporting news outlets – The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail – back in early May that the government had been kept fully informed of the unfolding crisis in China. Is that so, and, if it is does the fault lie with Johnson’s government?
These are not minor issues of party politics but central to understanding the mess that we are now in. Johnson clearly does not want them examined and, in the absence of a fully independent public inquiry, the best hope we have just now is an early investigation by the Intelligence and Security Committee, even extending into Parliament’s imminent summer recess. There was little hope of that under Grayling, so let’s see what Lewis might do.