Labour anger over Chris Grayling's appointment to intelligence committee

Shadow defence spokesperson says Brexit supporter’s ‘track record of failure’ means he should not preside over release of Russia report

Labour has demanded that Boris Johnson rethink plans to appoint Chris Grayling to the powerful intelligence and security committee, one of a group of Brexiter Conservatives who will have the final say over whether to release the long-delayed report on Russian influence in UK politics.

Nia Griffith, the party’s defence spokesperson, said that previous chairs of the special committee “have been highly qualified and experienced” and “not frightened of criticising the government where and when necessary”.

But the Labour MP added that she doubted whether Grayling was sufficiently expert to take on the role, citing “his track record of failure” as transport secretary and justice secretary – and called on the prime minister to “immediately rethink”.

The former transport secretary is one of several Tory grandees whose names have emerged as in the frame to be appointed to the watchdog, prompting alarm in Westminster and Whitehall circles.

Others include Theresa Villiers, who was environment secretary until the recent reshuffle, and Sir John Hayes, another leave supporter, who would be among nine MPs and peers determining how and whether to release the Russia report.

Westminster insiders reacted with dismay at the possibility of Grayling becoming chairman. One Conservative MP said: “He doesn’t have a clue and is likely to be supportive of the government, not critical.” One Whitehall veteran expressed outrage, writing an expletive in a text.

Grayling is best known as an error-prone minister who presided over the collapse of Northern and Thameslink rail services and the granting of a no-deal Brexit ferry contract to a company with no ships.

As justice secretary, he part-privatised the probation service and banned prisoners from receiving books from relatives – a measure that was overturned in the courts. He was also a prominent supporter of leave in the 2016 referendum campaign.

Downing Street is expected to appoint five Conservative members to the committee, with Grayling’s appointment described as “nailed on”.Other names mentioned as in the running include Mike Penning and Bernard Jenkin.

Labour will have a maximum of three and the Scottish National party one. Once selected, the nine members will elect a chair, with a high-profile MP such as Grayling well placed if the Conservative members can agree.

Some fear that if the committee has a Brexiter majority it could have an incentive to re-edit the Russia report, which looks at Kremlin influence in British politics, including the impact of meddling in the EU referendum.

Dominic Grieve, who chaired the committee in the last parliament, has said the new members should release the report, which has been written, finalised and cleared, without delay once they start sitting – which could yet take a couple of months.

“I urge the new members to publish the report as soon as they can,” Grieve said, although he said he expected new members to brief themselves on its contents before it was published and publicly debated.

Downing Street was accused of suppressing the Russia report in the run-up to the election. It had been completed and cleared by the spy agencies, but Boris Johnson refused to sign it off until after he won an overall majority in December, prompting accusations that it made for awkward reading for the Conservatives.

No 10 insiders, however, insist that the report is far less contentious than political critics have suggested. The report was cleared after the election by Johnson, leaving the decisions over its final release to the new committee.

This week, the Guardian published some of the evidence received by the committee, from Bill Browder, an anti-corruption campaigner. He accused Russia of hiring a network of British politicians and consultants to help advance its criminal interests and to “go after” Vladimir Putin’s enemies in London.

Contributor

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

The GuardianTramp

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