Tory whip Chris Heaton-Harris has been accused of trying to undermine academic freedom by sending out the controversial Brexit letter to universities
A Conservative MP who asked university professors to reveal what they teach about Brexit faced the possibility of an official standards inquiry today.
Chris Heaton-Harris has been referred to the Commons Standards Commissioner Kathryn Hudson over claims he broke rules on MPs’ conduct.
Liberal Democrat Tom Brake alleged an ‘abuse of parliamentary facilities’ because Mr Heaton-Harris sent the notes on taxpayer-funded Commons paper apparently during research for a book.
Mr Brake accused Mr Heaton-Harris of a ‘poorly disguised attempt to intimidate universities’.
Mr Heaton-Harris, who is a senior Government whip, has been accused of running a ‘McCarthy-style’ inquisition and of ‘idiotic Leninism’ for his letter, which asked vice-chancellors who teaches on Brexit at their universities and what is on the syllabus.
Downing Street has distanced itself from Mr Heaton-Harris but Tory backbenchers have rallied to his defence.
Standards Commissioner Ms Hudson will consider Mr Brake’s letter before deciding whether to open a formal investigation.
Revealing his letter, Mr Brake told The Times: ‘The letter was not only a poorly disguised attempt to intimidate universities to shut down debate on Brexit, but if the government minister Jo Johnson is correct then Chris Heaton-Harris was also collecting material for a book.
‘If it really was research for a book, why wasn’t Mr Heaton-Harris using his own stationery? Surely he should also have made clear that he was seeking the information for the purposes of writing a book.
‘Vice-chancellors clearly thought he was writing in his capacity as a figure in the government and that is why they found the letter so chilling.
‘On the face of it this seems like a clear abuse of parliamentary facilities and there are several questions to answer.’
Liberal Democrat Tom Brake alleged an ‘abuse of parliamentary facilities’ because Mr Heaton-Harris sent the notes on taxpayer-funded Commons paper apparently during research for a book
The row over the letter exploded earlier this week. Sutton and Cheam MP Paul Scully spoke up for his colleague, revealing on Twitter his daughter had been handed anti-Brexit literature by a professor.
As the row blew up on Tuesday night, Mr Scully posted his picture of the ‘100% Remain’ campaign leaflet
He said: ‘This is what a lecturer was handing out to my daughter who spends £9,000pa for him to be teaching engineering, not politics.’
Other Tories leapt to Mr Heaton Harris’ defence. MP James Duddridge told MailOnline: ‘This row is something about nothing. It is an open letter asking for universities to say how they teach Brexit.
‘It is perfectly legitimate for an MP to ask, particularly as its a very new subject.’
Tory MP Paul Scully said his daughter was handed pro-Remain book on her university course
Sutton and Cheam MP Paul Scully spoke up for his colleague, revealing on Twitter his daughter had been handed anti-Brexit literature by a professor
Tory MP Charlie Elphicke rallied to the defence of Mr Heaton-Harris said the reaction had been ‘ludicrous’ and pointed out universities should be ‘out and proud about their teaching, rather than being so defensive’.
He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: ‘It’s typical of universities who tend to over-react to any kind of challenge or questioning and try and shut down debate.
‘What is wrong with saying: ‘who is teaching European affairs and what is on the syllabus? I don’t see a dark and sinister undercurrent in that.’
Jo Johnson, the universities minister, distanced the Government from the row.
He told the BBC that while Mr Heaton-Harris had been pursuing an ‘academic inquiry’ with a view to writing a book on attitudes towards Europe, he had left himself open to misinterpretation.
‘Chris has been engaged in the European question for many, many years. He probably didn’t appreciate the extent to which this would be misinterpreted,’ Mr Johnson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘I am sure Chris is regretting this very much. The Government is absolutely committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech in our university system.
‘I think a letter that could have been misinterpreted should probably not have been sent in this way.’
BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson cited it as a reason why the UK didn’t ‘feel like my country now’.
Posting on Twitter, Simpson wrote: ‘MP wants details of anti-Brexit univ teachers. Decent folk deported on technicalities. Daily hate in press. Doesn’t feel like my country now.’
Amid a wave of criticism, he added this morning: ‘Don’t assume you know my views on Brexit or politics because you don’t. What upsets me is the current viciousness in British public life.’
Mr Duddridge led criticism of Simpson as he told MailOnline the row was ‘something about nothing’.
MPs said the intervention from Simpson (pictured) was ‘disproportionate’ and he was displaying a lack of ‘balance’
John Simpson gave a damning assessment of Mr Heaton-Harris’s letter on Twitter last night, before insisting this morning that it did not reflect his views on Brexit
But Mr Duddridge said Simpson’s intervention was ‘very odd’. ‘I don’t think he has read the letter from Chris Heaton-Harris. His comments in no way correspond to Chris’s letter.
‘He needs to sit down in a darkened room and relax.
‘Chris’s letter is balanced. John Simpson’s response is not.’
Another senior Tory told MailOnline the remarks from Simpson showed the ‘elite’ was finding it ‘difficult to deal with’ the fact that Brexit was now the ‘political mainstream’.
Mr Heaton-Harris, MP for Daventry, wrote in his letter to universities: ‘I was wondering if you would be so kind as to supply me with the names of professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit.
‘Furthermore, if I could be provided with a copy of the syllabus and links to the online lectures which relate to this area I would be much obliged.’
In response, the Chancellor of Oxford University, Lord Patten of Barnes – a former Conservative Party chairman – accused Mr Heaton-Harris of ‘idiotic Leninism’.
He said: ‘It is absolutely disgraceful… If he doesn’t know that universities are autonomous, that universities aren’t like Chinese re-education camps, then he doesn’t know very much about what it’s like to live in a free society.’
Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, branded it ‘sinister’ and ‘dangerous’, adding: ‘Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak, naturally justified as ‘the will of the British people’.’
The letter, which has been widely circulated online, asks for the name of who is teaching Brexit and links to the syllabus and online lectures relating to the topic
And Kevin Featherstone, head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics, told the Guardian: ‘The letter reflects a past of a McCarthyite nature. It smacks of asking: are you or have you ever been in favour of Remain? There is clearly an implied threat that universities will somehow be challenged for their bias.’
Mr Heaton-Harris attempted to clarify his intentions on Twitter, writing: ‘To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit.’
Mr Heaton-Harris was promoted to vice-chamberlain of Her Majesty’s household in the Whip’s Office after this summer’s election.
A former member of the European parliament, he is a strong Eurosceptic.
Chris Patten, chancellor of Oxford University, tore into the letter which he said is ‘absolutely disgraceful’ (file pic)