The former Tory MP elected to head up an important security committee has accused Boris Johnson of making an “improper request”.
Julian Lewis said the prime minister does not have the right to choose who chairs the intelligence and security committee (ISC) after he was picked to do so on Tuesday night.
He has since lost the Tory whip after being elected as chairman, with it having been widely reported that Johnson wanted Chris Grayling for the job.
In a statement to the PA news agency, Lewis 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. At no earlier stage did I give any undertaking to vote for any particular candidate.”
A senior government source said Lewis had had the Conservative whip withdrawn because he had been "working with Labour and other opposition MPs for his own advantage".
However, Lewis said Downing Street had publicly declared it did not have a favoured candidate for the post, despite widespread reports of a whipping operation to get the Tories on the committee to vote for Grayling.
He added: “In recent days, the official No 10 spokesman explicitly denied that the government was seeking to 'parachute' a preferred candidate in to the chair, stating that it was a matter for the senior parliamentarians on the committee to decide.
"It is therefore strange to have the whip removed for failing to vote for the government's preferred candidate."
Critics have accused Johnson of “running scared” after the Tory whip was removed from Lewis, which some say was the decision of Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings.
Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael tweeted: “Having failed to install a loyalist, PM now running scared of scrutiny.
“This is an overreaction, likely by Dominic Cummings rather than the Chief Whip.”
He added: “All MPs must stand firm against No10 power grab.”
Former Tory cabinet minister and chairman of the ISC, Dominic Grieve, who also had the Tory whip removed in 2019 over his opposition to Brexit, described the move against Lewis as “utter absurdity”.
He told the BBC: “What troubles me about this episode, quite apart from its utter absurdity, and now withdrawing the whip from Julian, who is indeed highly respected, is the mindset it gives about what on earth is going on in Downing Street.
“Why did they try to manipulate this process? They shouldn’t have done.
“The committee can only exist, the committee can only be respected… if it is seen to be non-partisan, and independent.”
Former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, another ex-ISC chairman, said the prime minister had acted in an "extremely incompetent" manner and that those responsible for advising him should be sacked.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it is essential that the committee is seen to be independent of government if it is to be able to do its job effectively.
Labour's shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy also criticised the decision, tweeting: "Completely self-defeating act that bears the hallmark of a government so arrogant it really believes it is above scrutiny.”
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner branded the move against Lewis “grubby”.
She tweeted: “Julian Lewis MP has the Tory Whip removed after being elected as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Select Committee, after beating hapless Chris Grayling. I wonder who in No10 ordered that the long serving Tory MP had the whip removed? What a grubby shower they are!”
With the Conservatives enjoying a majority – with five out of nine places on the committee – there had been concern at Westminster that the Tory members would be “whipped” to support Grayling despite concerns about his expertise.
Unlike previous chairmen, the former transport secretary had little experience of security matters and was dubbed "failing Grayling" for a series of policy blunders during his time in government.
Reacting to Grayling’s loss, SNP shadow defence secretary, Stewart McDonald, said: “With his abysmal record of failure as a Tory minister, Chris Grayling is the only man who could lose a rigged election.”
In contrast, Lewis is a former chairman of the Commons defence committee, who has taken a close interest in defence and security issues throughout his time in Parliament.
Johnson has faced criticism over the delay in appointing the committee which has not met since the last parliament was dissolved in November last year.
The committee has yet to publish its long-awaited report into Russian interference in UK politics after Johnson refused to clear it for release before last year’s general election.