Jo Johnson is a former journalist with a reputation as one of the Tory Government’s most slippery media performers, capable of ignoring even the most direct questions to get across his prepared message.
But the Universities Minister, (left) the younger brother of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, has outdone himself by using a BBC Today radio interview to come up with an eyebrow-raising excuse for a senior Conservative MP’s bid to collect the names of university lecturers teaching Brexit and details of what they are teaching.
As the staunch Brexiteer and Government Whip Chris Heaton-Harris was being accused of trying to intimidate academics Johnson insisted to interviewer Nick Robinson that his fellow Tory MP had just been doing research for a book he might write one day about attitudes to Europe.
Johnson said the MP for Daventry had been “pursuing inquiries of his own” which may lead to a subsequent book on “the evolution of attitudes” towards Europe, rather than acting in his capacity as a Government MP.
Heaton-Harris’s letter to all university vice-chancellors on his House of Commons letterhead demanding copies of all course material being used to teach students about Brexit sparked allegations from senior academics that it was a “sinister” piece of “McCarthyism” aimed at stifling academic freedom and criticism of Brexit.
Heaton-Harris “probably should not have sent the letter,” said Johnson, who repeatedly refused to criticise his colleague and insisted the letter had been “misinterpreted”. Heaton-Harris describes himself as “a fierce Eurosceptic” and spent a decade as a Member of the European Parliament before being elected to the House of Commons in 2010.
MP Goes Missing
While Johnson insisted that his Tory colleague was now “regretting very much” his decision to send the letter Heaton-Harris (left) avoided all requests from the media, including Felix Magazine, to explain his letter, which made no reference to seeking the material for personal reasons or book research.
Opposition parties suggested Heaton-Harris was seeking to compile a list of academic “Brexit heretics” and called for him to be stripped of his role as a whip.
Former Conservative Party chairman Lord Patten, now Chancellor of Oxford University, said the letter should be chucked in the bin, describing it as “an extraordinary example of outrageous and foolish behaviour – offensive and idiotic Leninism.”
Liberal Democrat Vince Cable said it was “a sign of the weakness of this Government that Jo Johnson had been sent out to defend the indefensible.”
Johnson said in the interview that he had spoken to Heaton-Harris. “Chris was acting in an individual capacity as an MP rather than as a Government Minister. Chris has a very longstanding interest in European affairs and the history of European thought. He was pursuing inquiries of his own which may, in time, lead to a book on these questions. It was more of an academic inquiry rather than an attempt to constrain the freedom that academics rightly have.”
“I am sure Chris is regretting this very much. I think a letter that could have been misinterpreted should probably not have been sent in this way.”
Not My Country
Heaton-Harris’s action drew a stinging critique from the BBC’s World Affairs Editor John Simpson, who cited it as a reason why the UK didn’t “feel like my country anymore.”
Simpson wrote in social media: ”MP wants details of anti-Brexit univ teachers. Decent folk deported on technicalities. Daily hate in press. Doesn’t feel like my country now. 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.”
Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary, said Heaton-Harris must come out hiding and explain his motivation. “The last thing universities need is some kind of pound shop McCarthy telling them what they are allowed to teach,” she said. “Academics and students are perfectly capable of critical thinking and discussion about policy issues like Brexit. If only we could say the same about Tory ministers.”
Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, said he had felt a chill down his spine when he read the “sinister” request. “This letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous,” he said. “Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and Newspeak, naturally justified as ‘the will of the British people’, a phrase to be found on Heaton-Harris’s website.”
by Bob Graham